Being Single

by David L. Hill

The most surprising thing about being single is that you’re never lonely. That’s right, never lonely, thanks to pitying friends’ endless dinner invitations or, better yet, their attempts to set you up with “the perfect girl.” The Palm Pilot—leave the jokes to me, please—fills up quickly without a girlfriend or wife.

Certainly being single is a challenge but, like any challenge, the only thing you can do is face it. The benefits of that attitude far outweigh the negatives of shacking up with someone for all the wrong reasons, namely “to have a girlfriend.” Unlike women, who often view marriage as the final—and only acceptable—result of dating, men can get enjoyment out of the process of meeting someone new, hanging out, breaking up, meeting another someone new, etc.

I’m also here to tell you that, contrary to what most people think, being 37, single and male has in no way limited my exposure to children. I’ve got a sippy cup-filled existence that would make a Ruxton soccer mom jealous. My siblings have children, my colleagues have children, my friends and neighbors have children—even some of the women I date have children. And all of these parents attempt to fill a perceived emptiness in my life by tossing their little ones off on me. Or, more likely, they just need someone to pick ‘em up from Little League practice. They might not be my own kids, but the Kool-Aid stains on my car seats are just as real.

I can also report that my settled buddies, even with their wives and children and stable relationships, envy my life. At least that’s the sense I get as we’re fly-fishing on a trout stream or out at a ballpark, rock club or some other venue they regard as a mecca that allows them to be sans their beloved significant other ever so briefly—if regular and repeated checking in on the cell doesn’t count. Of course, there’s no shortage of embellishment on my part about my chance meetings with gorgeous, flirty blondes at Starbucks (certainly a Baltimore double-latte fantasy—given the scarcity in town of both Starbucks and flirty blondes).

With a rotating cast of fine companions—not to mention 24/7 access to kids without the pesky responsibility of raising them and paying for college—there’s no risk of my relationships growing tired and stale. It works something like this: I can cook a half-dozen or so things that are pretty damn good and I have a handful of stories that I consider my “A” material (“Ever told you the one about the Flora-Bama? Or the time I hung out with Springsteen?”). So I go out with a girl for a while, hear her funny tales, eat her best dishes and then move on. Perhaps I even swipe a witty line or a recipe for later use just in case I become involved in a long-term relationship and need more material and/or stuff to eat.

It’s a two-way and—at least thus far for me—dead-end street, but in this manner I’ve learned to take the good from a lot of the wonderful women I’ve dated (and block some things from others, but that’s another essay). Likewise, I’m hopeful a few of them smile rather than cringe when they hear one of my obscure musical fixations such as Marah or The Drive-By Truckers (who have a song in which a somewhat bitter single warns a too-cuddly couple, “Don’t be in love around me”). I like to think that in some kitchen out there, a girl listening to “Kids In Philly” or “Decoration Day” takes a brick and pounds it against raw poultry while fondly recalling that I was the one who taught her how to prepare the perfect Chicken Under A Brick. A single guy can dream.

And yet, while the surprising thing about being single is that you are never lonely, the harsher truth is that you are often alone—and no amount of tasty food or indie music can change that. So don’t believe a single guy who says he’s perfectly happy and can’t imagine having to answer that annoying cell phone call asking what time he’ll be home. I am that guy and I know that the only thing worse is when there’s no one who cares enough to call.

In the meantime, don’t be in love around me.

David L. Hill, who publishes Outside Pitch, the news magazine for Orioles fans, and manages Baltimore roots-rock band June Star, is under no illusions about why he’s still single.

Getting Married

by Bret Schulte

The most surprising thing about getting married is my depth of feeling for the gerbera daisies. And the tulle and the Christmas lights. And the invitations and the cake stands and the coffee mugs for a beverage I don’t even drink.

My interest in the wedding began normally enough. My first thought was not the color of the flowers (peach), nor the tea-lights on each reception table (three). It was the party. The alcohol. The band. I enlisted my favorite group from college, a middle-aged classic-rock trio with a populist shtick: karaoke. They play the instruments, you play the star. To encourage would-be vocalists and enhance audience participation, I ordered enough whiskey and Pabst Blue Ribbon to float the Yellow Submarine.

In a matter of days, my “guy” work was complete. Men are not only instructed to stay out of the way—this is her day, we are told—the rituals of the wedding reinforce our relative unimportance. She spends a thousand dollars or more on a new wedding dress; we spend a hundred on a rented tux. (More on the wedding dress later.)

But bowing out after securing the band and the booze never occurred to me. I wanted to be the groom, not the house manager. For three years, Stephanie and I have lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., where we divide 600 square feet among a television, a kitchen table, four bookcases, two desks, a couch, and two hamsters in separate cages with so much relative space and privacy that we stare at them with disgust.

We made it through all this on no money to speak of because she’s the type of woman who’ll let me take the most important day of her life and pay a karaoke band to provide the soundtrack—which is to say, we know how to share what’s important. The day we make our commitment to each other official and final before God and everyone is the ultimate act of sharing. My involvement in the planning, and my level of interest in the details, is, I’ve concluded, both an extension of our life together and a public display of what makes us work.

And, hell, it’s OK for me to like weddings. I’m a modern man facing life in the metrosexual epoch. The time is ripe for a guy who makes the final decision on the accent color for the bridesmaids’ black cocktail dresses (lime green). I am that guy.

But I am not alone.

The more I’ve talked about my wedding over the past year, the more I’ve heard from and about other guys like me. Matt, a buddy of mine from high school, talked with his wife about the details of their wedding every day for six months, even after they hired a wedding planner. Now, I talk to Matt about my wedding almost every day.

There’s even http://www.planetgordon.com, an increasingly popular blog from Doug Gordon, a 29-year-old TV writer due to tie the knot this year. Much like the chat rooms and boards for anxious brides on TheKnot.com, Gordon’s blog snipes at other people’s weddings, derides certain traditions while championing others and indulges in the details of his upcoming nuptials. “We settled on a three-tiered marble cake with buttercream and raspberry filling,” he confides.

Cyberspace notwithstanding, the wedding world is a traditional one, ill-equipped for and impatient with an interested male. Early on, Stephanie dragged me along on an unthinkable mission: to help her pick out the dress, breaking every taboo and superstition ever printed in Brides. The boutique girls reacted in one of two ways. Either they assumed I was the gay best friend and accepted my presence, or they hiked up their eyebrows and left us alone, knowing the awful truth: that a woman would court her future husband’s opinion as they begin life together as one. Most of the time I slumped in a chair while Stephanie fought her way into wedding dresses behind closed doors. She would emerge, irritated and red-faced, wanting an honest opinion. With that on my resume, I can give Madeleine Albright lessons in diplomacy.

The cake lady, exulting over her use of marzipan rather than almond extract, spoke to me slowly when I interrupted to ask the reason. The florist rolled her eyes as I struggled to distinguish coral from peach and confused irises and lilies. To Stephanie she described a number of flowers with names I did not know. When I asked for clarification, she turned to Stephanie. “You know what they look like, right?” Talking to me was not worth the effort. For 45 minutes, I participated in a flower-powered game of Operator.

After I carefully detailed to the photographer the shots we wanted, she turned to Stephanie and said, “You’re lucky. Usually I never even see the groom until the day of the wedding.”

That’s when it hit me how many guys disappear during this time. They’re uninterested or uninvited or embarrassed to admit they have an opinion. But I feel like I’m the one who’s lucky. I love the look and feel of our wedding. I love the gerbera daisies—now that I know what they are. I don’t like cake but I’m looking forward to ours (four flavors total, including the marzipan). For the gift registry, I convinced Stephanie to let me add Sears to the list. So far, I’ve received a 230-watt soldering gun and my favorite movie, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The day that Stephanie and I consecrate our life together will be an echo of our life thus far. It’s not going to be her day, any more than it’s going to be my day. It’s a day to celebrate what delivered us to this moment in the first place. Each other.

Bret Schulte lives and writes in Washington, D.C.

Becoming a Father

by Jack Gilden

The most surprising thing about becoming a father is that you’re not crazy in love with your children the moment they’re born.

I know on its surface the statement is appalling. But it’s true.

It’s completely different for women. They literally hear the egg crack and, from that moment on, that tiny little zygote is No. 1 and you are No. 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6, depending on how many kids, goldfish and pairs of ladies shoes already reside in the house.

If a girlfriend, mistress or barfly tells you she’s having your baby, your first inclination is to flee down the expressway in a white Bronco. But when your wife drops the same bomb, your options are understandably limited: running would be shabby, plus it would cost you way too much money. When it happened to me, I just clutched her hand, pumped it up and down and sincerely wished her and the father all the best.

Soon after that display I was reduced to a state of catatonia. For about a week I was unable to do anything but watch “Sports Center” and absently spoon Post breakfast cereals into my slackened jaw. I only snapped out of it after my mother-in-law was flown in from Louisiana. The mere sight of her scared me straight.

My friends and family tried to bromide my jangled nerves by telling me my enthusiasm for fatherhood would grow in short order. My brother was an eager breeder who said he was aiming for four children. But when I asked my father, who actually had four children, if he ever had a specific number in mind, he answered without hesitation: “Yes. Zero.”

There’s my role model.

Indeed our society’s rituals are all stacked against enjoying fatherhood. First you have to endure the baby shower. For your wife it’s like hitting the jackpot on a game show. For you, it’s merely the first sign that for the next 20 years your house will be filled with crap—lots and lots of blinking, singing, plastic crap. It’s not like there’s nothing cheerful about a baby shower; at least your presence is discouraged.

Not so when it comes to birthing and baby-care classes. If you don’t show up for these two-hour death-by-boredom marathons, you’re Satan and your evil spawn will surely perish. An Orthodox Jewish woman who literally had 18 children taught the course we attended at GBMC. (I suspected she was a cleverly disguised Catholic.)

All of this, of course, was merely prologue for the actual day of birth. Nothing, and I can’t emphasize this enough, nothing will turn you off to fatherhood like birth. The whole thing reminded me of “A Clockwork Orange.” I was playing the part of the unrepentant freak and as punishment for my crime I was locked in a room for 18 hours of enforced viewing of something that was once pleasurable to me but was now supremely fearful.

It was about a year before I could even flip through a Playboy again. (I don’t actually buy that filth. I just read it at the airport.)

Your reward for all of this is supposed to be your heir. Instead you’re handed a raisin in a blanket. If it’s a boy, everyone tells you he’s your clone. If it’s a girl, everyone tells you how lucky you are that she doesn’t look a damn thing like you.

We named our son Max, after my paternal grandfather whose meaty paws he inherited. This was something of a comfort to me, though my first choice, vetoed by my wife, was Gino Marchetti.

The first few months at home with Max were like a fourth trimester just for me. My wife was in ecstasy at this fulfillment of her womanhood, but I was exhausted. After putting in a full day of work I would come home to an entire night of avoiding work. I don’t know how to sugarcoat this, so I’m just going to say it: I cannot cope with human excrement. I’m also not crazy about pee-pee, breasts as vending machines or penises. Don’t get me wrong, I was proud that Max had one, but I was also clearly revolted that for the foreseeable future its care and maintenance were my responsibility.

Despite all this, Max and I turned the corner. Before long, his ears unfurled in a pattern distinctive to Gilden men and African elephants. That endeared him to me.

So did his mischievous sense of humor.

He belched loudly when my wife patted his back, a universal “all’s clear,” but as soon as he was pressed against the lapels of my finely tailored suits he convulsed gallons of something that can only be described as a solid liquid. He learned to stand by grabbing my chest hair with both fists and climbing like one of Rapunzel’s suitors. His premeditation in these activities was evident from his peals of laughter.

When he was just 2 months old, he amazed audiences by repeating vowel sounds. At 4 months, he was a dancer. Grabbing my fingers he would pull himself to a standing position on my lap and do a circa-1995 “Cabbage Patch.” It was similar to one Colonel Sanders did in a KFC commercial, so I would sing, “Go, Colonel! Go Colonel!” while he whirled around. This was met with thunderous applause in more than one Chinese restaurant.

Today, I’m the father of two. My wife and I, apparently unable to live without the stench of the didy in our home, recently added a daughter, Iliana. Luxuriating in my burgeoning family I’ve come to realize that fatherhood is exactly what I thought it was—excruciating. But it’s also pretty damn good. Without it I was just another paunchy, middle-aged guy losing his hair, a garden-variety schmo. But now I’m the creator and custodian of life. I’m a father. And when you’re a father, well, you are somebody.

Jack Gilden is president of Gilden Integrated, a Baltimore- based advertising and public relations firm.

Getting Divorced

by Rafael Alvarez

The most surprising thing about getting divorced is the degree to which—absent that most perishable of goods, romance, and its favored hostage, sexual fidelity—my ex-wife and I have continued to fulfill our wedding vows.

I’m talking about the long road of love, work and friendship that we continue to travel nearly 16 years after calling it quits.

Quits—what does that mean? If you’ve got kids and you love ‘em, it’s never quits. I imagine that even the daddios who hit the road suffer long and tortured nights of exile in a small world where it’s always raining and Tom Waits is always on the radio.

My marriage lasted eight years, an exact parallel to the Reagan administration. Its dissolution in late 1988 was not something I wanted, despite being able to admit now what I could not articulate when I received the sacrament at age 22: I didn’t want to be married.

What I really wanted was for my sweetheart to be married—to me.

She was the one who proposed, during a long night of mutual confession in a ratty apartment at the corner of Preston and St. Paul streets. I said OK—pronounced “GERONIMO!”—and the next day we bought a tiny ruby on Howard Street, running down to the tugboats on South Broadway to tell my old man the news.

The ring is now worn by Amelia, the daughter born to us nine months after a reception at the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue.

For all the problems that did not reveal themselves until we were flailing around in the deep end of the pool, I believed that we would stay together forever.

Yeah, the trees had grown crooked—the limbs all twisted together, screaming out for pruning—but they’d been planted side-by-side and the roots went deep. Even during the worst of it, I remember thinking: This must just be the way it is.

About a year after saying she thought we should separate—a suggestion I thought was forgotten when she didn’t bring it up again—my wife asked me to meet her for lunch at the Women’s Industrial Exchange and quietly announced over ice cream that she was through.

And, with the German resolve of her father displacing the Italian passion of her mother, she would not be moved.

The end—energy not destroyed, but changed—was accompanied by all of the heartache and rancor due a couple of kids who’d met at 18, went steady all through college, got married in the school chapel upon graduation and then had three children in four years.

She got the house and the mortgage; the newer of the two cars—a gray Chevy wagon; and the monthly payments that went with it.

I moved in with my grandfather about 15 minutes away on Macon Street, took the roll-top desk that had been a gift from her in better times, my Johnny Winter records and a hot-air popcorn machine we’d gotten as a wedding present and never used. We never fought over custody of the children—it was crystal clear that our problems were with one another—and signed very simple paperwork without giving what little money we had to an attorney.

About six years into the divorce, after each of us had done hard work on the things we did not like about ourselves, we dated for the better part of a year without telling the kids what was going on.

It was sort of like exploratory surgery: not life-threatening, but not exactly fun.

Around the facade of “dates”—going to hear the remnants of The Band at the old Hammerjacks in Camden Yards, seeing a crappy Roman Polanski movie at the Charles—we explained ourselves to one another, the selves we didn’t understand as 20-somethings surfing the big waves of marriage.

The labor of it—stripped of the carbonation of going out with someone new—reminded me of something John Updike had written: It takes tenfold the energy to woo a reluctant wife than to charm a willing girl. Intrigue, adrenaline, lust—everything that had launched us a quarter-century ago—weren’t there this time. Instead of jumping off the cliff, we forded the river together, making it to the other side not as lovers but something akin to first cousins.

Judaic law provides a formula—the Kol Nidre—by which one can be released from vows or promises that could not be kept. It is part of the annual Yom Kippur tradition and addresses promises made between a human being and the Creator.

For release from promises made to others, absolution must be granted by the person to whom the promise was made.

Long before my ex and I tested the waters of reconciliation, I made amends—and had them accepted—for my part in the mess that our marriage became. A year or so after we had dated as ex-spouses, I received the same from her.

Judaism has a second, related ritual—the hatarat nedarim—in which the penitent acknowledges that if he’d known he would be unable to fulfill the commitment, he would never have made it in the first place.

That’s what I’m talking about.

Neither my ex nor I have remarried. With two of our children away at college and the one with the ruby ring on her own in Manhattan, we have begun taking family vacations again, sharing a week together down the ocean each summer and celebrating a handful of holidays and birthdays, complete with the ex mothers-in-law.

Sometimes I think the universe brought us together just long enough for our three kids to land on planet Earth. And thus, when each of us is so often asked why we don’t get back together again, the response is pretty much the same.

Are you out of your mind? It was never this good.

Rafael Alvarez is a writer based in Highlandtown.

Losing My Father

by Michael Anft

The most surprising thing about my father’s death was that he died at all. The surrealism that surrounds every death—an absurd commingling of the grief of loss and the utter disbelief that it has happened—was made even more dizzying by the way my father had lived.

He was the rock of the family and our block in Hamilton—the regular guy who worked hard at jobs he hated to feed the children, the font of patience and wisdom that held his brood together when some went missing or crazy, the increasingly delicate senior citizen who drove his more-frail neighbors to stores and doctor’s appointments, even as he waged a 10-year fight with cancer. He wasn’t supposed to leave us.

But there he was last February, partially propped up in a hospice bed, quietly willing himself to the end on a gloomy day that spared us the mockery of sunlight and early-blooming crocuses. Months of pain and pneumonia had caught up with him. Forestalling the inevitable wasn’t something he thought about, except as an obscene idea that only served the medical industry. His body had lost about one-third of its weight in preparation for his departure; he had become gnarled and a foot shorter. His voice had gone, too—the equivalent of hell to a man of strong opinions.

All the signs of diminution and imminence were there, but as anyone who has lost someone close to them could tell you, your heart does battle with your head—and loses—as inevitability sets in. Even as the brain registers the growing list of frailties and conditions, the heart resists the knowledge, cowering behind memories and familiarity as a frightened waif does behind his mother’s legs. The recognition of reality becomes the enemy.

Not that my father saw it that way. Faced with the slower death of a nursing home—the only option—he spent the last week of his life evincing the same will that kept him going through family breakdowns, the death of his wife, and gut-wrenching rounds of chemotherapy—to end it all.

He was in character. As a child, he had developed a heart murmur after a bout of a nervous-system disorder known as St. Vitus’ Dance. A doctor told him he should learn to enjoy watching other children play from the window of his Federal Street rowhouse because such exertion could kill him. My father not only failed to heed the advice but courted disaster, becoming a fixture at the local sandlot (where he undertook what is arguably baseball’s most labor-intensive position, catcher) and at the lake at Clifton Park, which he would run around several times on good-weather days. “I figured that if I couldn’t do the things I liked,” he once told me, “I might as well die, anyway.”

Life, then death, on his own terms. Even as it crumbled, the rock was steely tough. After he drew his last breath, I tried to close his eyes, but it didn’t work. “The old bastard won’t even let me shut his eyes,” I said, darkly joking to my brother and sister, who understood what I meant.

For those he left behind, the task was strictly boilerplate: Ascribe meaning to the dear and departed. Muse on his death. Figure out what it was about his life (and death) that can be used to keep us going. We summon the defeated heart in these instances; we become the frightened waif, leaning on memories.

Here are a few: My father, excited, waking me to tell me, “There’s a five-alarmer down on Biddle Street!”—after which we’d go to watch another part of the old city burn in the middle of the night. He and my Mom, happy as can be, as my wedding was coupled with a family reunion. Him, a skeleton with skin, rapt as I read an essay by economist John Kenneth Galbraith from “Hope Dies Last,” a collection by Studs Terkel, one of his favorite authors. Getting a call two hours later that he was in the emergency room and realizing that the beginning of the end had begun.

For a son, the loss of one’s guide through life is particularly difficult. Sigmund Freud called the death of a father the most important event of a son’s life. The husband of one of my cousins, whose father died years ago, sometimes pulls off the road when he sees a creek or river, geography that reminds him of father-and-son fishing trips. “I go down to the banks and talk to him,” he says. “I always will.”

All days and events—not just death—seem more important now. The things my father taught me—to spend time with the ones you love, to be principled, to stand, not kneel, with hands open, in case someone might need one—are in higher relief now.

It may be, as novelist Martin Amis has suggested, that it is the deaths of others that kills us. But the dead give us what’s left of them in memories, including ever-present reminders that it’s later than we think and that it’s all worth doing, no matter how it ends.

A few days after his death, my 9-year-old son and I picked up Dad’s ashes, which had been deposited in a small, nondescript, black box. Sometime, when we think we can handle it, my siblings, a spouse or two, my children and I will spread the box’s contents upon the hills above Loch Raven Reservoir, where my father scattered the cremated remains of my mother seven years ago.

We’ll all cry at the memories and feel their losses all over again. Then we’ll go on, in ways we haven’t yet imagined.

Getting Old

by Jim Bready

The most surprising thing about growing old is that I keep finding money.

Mostly pennies and dimes, but also nickels and quarters—at stores, in car parks, alongside meters. Back home, I toss them into a cardboard box; last year, the take came to almost $20. Perhaps this suggests something as to the state of the economy.

It suggests, says the bright and beautiful young woman I live with, that I’ve been looking down at my feet again. “Lift your head!” she says. “Look the world in the eye!” But, I say, that’s unrealistic. These days, I don’t just mumble and bumble. There’s also the stumbling. Only one trip-up and fall so far, but the ER bill was, shall we say, much more than $20.

Or, the most surprising thing is how much of Baltimore I no longer know. New buildings are always to be expected, as is (at age 85) my no longer getting around so much. Canton, I read, is having a boom. Imagine, suburbs that reach clear up into Pennsylvania! I hope government and philanthropy and even private enterprise are improving the schools and creating some jobs, as well as rehabbing, along the streets to the west and the east, the ones with all those boarded-up windows. It’s several years now since I last rode an MTA bus, looking out the window; so some of downtown’s changes, too, are beyond my eyesight or awareness.

I still pore over newspapers and magazines, but identifying printed names isn’t the same as recognizing (and being recognized by) a living face.

This, too, I must accept—it goes with the piling up of the decades. (Hello, here comes yet another new generation.) At the same time, it is not good, morning, when I turn, as usual, to the obituary page, and find no friends mentioned because so many of them have already appeared in those headlines. The point is, naturally, people keep replacing people. Less important—yet making for its own feeling of loss—is that so many of the proud new commercial buildings put up after the Fire of ‘04 were deemed worn out and pulled down before last February’s centennial observances.

But some of this is Baltimore’s fault. It grows so much bigger, so much faster. In my Evening Sun days, the full professor who was chairman of English literature, say, or psychology, or “political economy” at Johns Hopkins was somebody—ordinary readers knew him (or her? no) by newsprint headline, if not also from a photo. Heck, when I was young, if you moved about Baltimore enough, and absorbed enough, you could know (or find out) who was who around town, and who was up to what. Self-kidding, of course, that you would ever really place all the players; still, it was sort of fun.

Nowadays, how many members of the City Council can you name? Of the County Council?

True, I had an advantage. Besides writing editorials for The Evening Sun, I was also, from 1954 to 1984, the Baltimore stringer for Time, Life and Fortune. The prospect of being mentioned in a future issue of any of these national magazines—of seeing your picture there!—was enough to arouse the stoniest ego. For me, it meant entree. In 1955, for instance, Fortune had an idea (which still persists): let’s name, from the top down, the nation’s richest individuals. The query telegram I received from New York read: tell us whose stack of chips is Maryland’s highest.

It took some pussyfooting, and it meant disappointing the chairman and principal shareholder of the A.S. Abell Co., publisher of The Sunpapers (home-owned back then). But I made an appointment and one day, there I was, high in the Blaustein Building (now the site of One North Charles Street), sitting in the private office of Jacob Blaustein, oil industrialist. I asked him: “How much are you worth, sir?”

He just smiled.

Nowadays, I suppose the surprising thing is that I should have been so well-behaved, never asking the other question: Mr. Blaustein, when you are walking along, and you notice a coin on the sidewalk, do you bend over to pick it up?

Jim Bready has worked for The Baltimore Sun since 1945 as a copy editor, reporter, feature writer, editorial writer and book columnist.

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