swisscheesed provided me with this writing assignment:
"What I'd like you to write about is something more personal, and a subject I've been curious about for a while -- your wife. I spy her in the periphery of your posts but I'd like to know more about her -- for that pencil doodle to be shaped into something more tangible and real. I'd like to know how she laughs and at what; how she likes to take her coffee, or if she completely eschews it; the way her face crinkles up (or not) when she's thinking about something..."
We met on a July evening in 1988, on a Delta Airlines flight. We were flying from Los Angeles to Dallas. I was reading the J.G. Ballard novel "Empire of the Sun". She was reading "Architecture Digest". I assumed she was an architect. She assumed I was a rancher.
When the plane got dark, she reached over to my overhead, and said "Want a light?". When the meals came, we stopped reading, and began to talk together. I told her about clubs and museums in the Dallas Fort Worth area. I knew that we would really get along well when she said she had just been to see Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire". I had really wanted to see this movie, so I expected some kind of discussion of its themes. Instead, she smiled and looked at me wide-eyed, and said "I was so bored!". We talked and laughed the whole remaining flight.
The next evening, a Friday, I went for a steak with a co-worker after work to a place in Dallas' West End where you grill your own steak. The place had one of those huge open pits, over which you placed your hand-chosen slab of sirloin and prove your mastery of the form.
I was telling my co-worker about the fascinating woman I met on the plane, when I saw her there. She was with a male friend. She is a small person, not more than 5 foot 2, and her fair features turned a bit pink, as if done rare, in the blast heat from the steak grill. I went and said "hi" to she and her friend, but it was just one of those curious chance coincidences.
At that time, the woman who would become my wife, whom I'll call M. for convenience, such being her initial, worked as a managing editor for a Recreational Vehicle magazine. She'd moved to Southern California from the midwest to go to school at the Claremont Colleges. After she got her liberal arts degree, she got a job in publishing with a local newspaer. She interviewed for a post at a motorcycle trade magazine. They asked her if she rode. She'd never been on a motorbike in her life. She told them "hire me, and I will ride".
She got the job and a motorcycle. For a time, she rode across the Santa Monica Mountains to work in an inland valley just up the coastline from Los Angeles. I love to read the articles she wrote during that time. M. is in some ways a shy person, a bespectacled inaggressive person who certainly looks like the last person you'd ever imagine to be managing editor of a motorcycle magazine. But she really enjoyed the times when for product testing purposes, they'd be assigned to ride a bike someplace, and then write about the ride. She later rode bikes for a bicycle magazine, but she did not buy a Winnebago when she moved on to the RV magazine.
My favorite one of her motorcycle articles is the one in which they take simple scooters and drive up north to Mono Lake, that curious inland lake in what looks like a lunar landscape. I can imagine M. on that ride, though we had not met at that time. It featured a lot of the things she values--good fun with friends, a good "project" to write about, and a bit of quirkiness--after all, the scooter must have had roughly 650 less cc's than her motorcycle. I've never been to Mono Lake, but I have it fixed firmly in my mind, as part of the scenery between the "vrrooom" of the magazine article.
On our first date, we went to Torung, a wonderful dive Thai restaurant in Hollywood. She insisted we have an entree with squid, while I, rarely a drinker of any kind all my life, somehow insisted that we order Pacificos. First dates bring out the eccentric in anyone. I wish I still had that copy of "Empire of the Sun", in which her name, misspelled, and phone number are in the inside cover. We drove past Tarzana in the valley, where I told her of John Carter of Mars, and then we stopped at Barney's Beanery, where she had coffee and I had hot chocolate. When she is listening, she makes focused eye contact, with her grey-blue eyes.
In my journal, I always make references to M. very third person, so as to preserve her privacy. But in our lives, since we met in 1988, she's always been a big part of the fabric of my life. If you have not met me in person, then you may not realize that although I am not a "social" person, I thrive on good conversation with people I really like. M. and I have from the beginning been able to talk at length and at ease about so many things, and we share so many values and stray notions. We're quite different people in some ways, but we share more similarities than differences. She laughs at my sense of humour, and I laugh at hers. I'm not a joke-teller, in particular, but instead tend to lace my amusement at life into long narratives. She's quick to spot and report on absurdity as she detects it.
Similarly, if you have read only my journal, you've missed the part about how any social interaction with M. and I in which you might engage would feature each of us pitching into the discussion. We're both pleasant enough people, but she's probably more down to earth a conversationalist than I am.
M. is from the Kansas side of Kansas City, but in some ways she fits the stereotype "I'm from Missouri". Unlike the flights of fancy (and sometimes spirals of aluminum foil) which are my way of looking at things, M. is literal almost to the nth degree. She's the type who can review a bill from a health care provider against a health insurance plan, and determine overcharges. She'll phone the insurer and say "you overpaid the clinic". She's an English literature degree holder, of course, and we all know English majors are all secretly math geniuses. She has that unimpassive face when she concentrates on getting the details right.
She reads non-fiction more than fiction, and when she writes, her articles are conversational rather than filled with pretense or effect. She's the kind who puts people at ease, and cares who they are and what they think. We both have a sense of humour that tends to the sarcastic, but her approach is arguably both gentler and yet less circuitous than my own. She lacks my sometimes elaborate southern traits, but at the same time, she has a courtesy and grace that is down to earth. As she has matured, she's become more frank and more willing to stand up for herself.
When M. wishes to describe what she likes about being with me, she says "he makes me laugh every day", which I always find very flattering. In my life, she is such a part of everything, it would be hard to imagine where to begin to say all the things I like about her. But I sometimes tell her that what I like about her most is that she tries really hard. I like people with spunk in the face of the challenges before them, and M. is always in the batter's box, swinging.
She's the person with practical skills in our family. She's the one who took over a decade of French in school growing up, and can steer us through foreign travel fluently. While I can do basic handy work only with care and frustrating time consumption, she's apt to be the one to install a doggie door or assemble furniture in our home. While I am artistically impaired, the picture she painted when she was 12 of a huge, improbable bear losing control of his balloon hangs in our living room. The bear is letting fall a single tear.
She loves to go to the coffee shop if she knows the people behind the counter.
She will order a latte, and we will weeks later go see the waitress sing jazz on a winter's Saturday night. She has dear friends from high school and college, whom she loves to see (and I enjoy), and two younger sisters (and their husbands) whom we love to see.
Her father's family is third generation Swedish American. They do not speak Swedish anymore, but at holidays, we eat mustard ring, which is like a bundt of relish to place on meat, potato sausages, and waybread. Her people are friendly people, but in line with stereotype, they do not smother one another or pry into each other's lives. M. does not look like some Swede stereotype, but instead like a small, Finnish person. Her people come from Warmland, the part of Sweden settled by many Finns, but it may be her Irish-American mother that makes for her appearance.
Her grandfather was involved in a business which licensed and then developed the patent for the old fashioned red coke machine, and her father, an engineer/MBA, now runs a business for which my science training barely gives me the primer of vocabulary for how the technical equipment works. I am enormously fond of my in-laws, and I think they are fond of me. My own family, from small town Arkansas, thinks my wife is wonderful.
M. went back to school while we were in California, to train to become a junior high teacher. She taught a year, just before we left, but decided it was not for her. The school paper that year produced by her journalism class got rave reviews.
I've always thought teacher training was a godsend for her, although she chose to return to writing. The presentation skills she learned in that training really aid her in her writing and presenting for work now.
She's good at making sure that things get done professionally and on time. She's organized where I am more an "idea person". She's one of those people who does not long to be famous or read or noted. She just wants to be happy and to have meaning in her life. When she puzzles something out, she's concentrating because she wants to find an answer--she's not a debater, but an inquirer. Unlike me, though, she rarely takes an idea and lets it hover in the air, just for personal fancy. She's more practical in some ways, although she has a good imagination. Her imagination is used to make things work better. She loves to see how to plan where to put flowers in our front flower beds, or to take a yoga or a cooking class. She's a great editor, who took a highly complicated book about a new technology I can barely describe, and brought to it a good reader's eye. She now works as a technical writer, who helps engineers translate their materials into more readable manuals and intranets.
I love that she now is great at interviewing and finding jobs, having overcome an earlier shyness about such matters.
When we go out to meet other people, we both are apt to talk. I'm apt to be the one asking more detailed questions and launching into more flights of fancy and long, humorous narrative. She tends to be a bit less shy, and more down to earth. We both are quite easy-going with others, but a bit demanding with ourselves. We both worry that we wish not to offend people. We both love close friends.
Left to ourselves,we both love to hike and walk and chat as we spend time together. We are apt to go out for dinner and a movie, or to rent a video. When we vacation, exercise is usually a big part of the picture--we'll go snorkeling in the Bahamas, or Summer hiking in Canada. This year, as we try to live the simpler life, we will try to stay nearer home.
M. is neither excessively girly nor a proverbial tomboy. She's just right. She is one of those small framed people who looks nearly the same as she did at 28. She used to dress a lot in hand-painted outfits by her college friend who designed them, but now she's more apt to wear simple, nicely done, non-eccentric everyday clothing.
When I began this journal, one of the things that I wanted to avoid was to use this journal to air out "private" facts about my life or work or marriage. This works quite well, in the main, as I find that so many facts are public that I can discuss without infringing on anyone's feelings. However, I do worry that it gives the journal one-sidedness, because in so many things I do, M. is beside me, and we are discussing it or interfacing about it or making a decision about it. She's such an integral part of my everyday, but I'm not sure one reading my journal would see it.
We married, each for the first time, when I was 30 and she was days short of 30. I think that the first year. adjusting after being set in our ways, was the hardest, and each year thereafter has gotten easier. We do not spend time worrying about so many things that couples worry about, because it has been clear to us for years that we will be married from here on out, barring the unforeseen. That's a good feeling.
We live in a brick house that is nice and entirely suited to us, but not luxurious. We drive a Toyota and a Hyundai in an area where Lexuses are parked not far away, and Hummers hit the road a town or so over. We spend a lot of time together, but we also spend a lot of time apart from each other. We've always recognized the importance of space in making a relationship work. We don't have children, by choice, in some part because at one time I worked hellish hours for my profession and it seemed wrong to have children if I could not drop the things one needs to drop to really pitch in. We love kids, though, and have warm relationships with nieces and nephews.
M. always encourages me. Whether I want to write, or record music, or start a chess club, fly a cheap kite, or talk about feeder guppies, she's always on my side. I try to do the same for her. We decided to leave California, where we loved our life in the foothills during which tine I had a rather nice downtown Los Angeles practice, on a Thanksgiving day in 1999. She brought the subject up, during our Thanksgiving dinner at the Flintridge Inn. "It's time", she said, going on to explain how we needed to be near family and away from the sheer burden that living in an expensive city can be. We worked like near-clockwork to get my business set up and get the move done, although her attention was diverted by the final months of the passing of her mother from cancer that next year. She and her sisters touched me with how together and there they were for their mother, a wonderful woman whose life could have been taken from that of the "artistic soul trapped in KC society" subplots of the novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. I always say that those novels are about the people among whom my wife's people grew up.
I'd like for you to imagine, if you will, the difference between the 31st Floor of the IBM Tower of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Los Angeles, where I made my offices prior to 2000, and the ground floor window office in somewhat sleepy downtown Garland, Texas, which you entered by going through a coffee shop that served lattes and brownies. Garland is, after all, one of the models for the television cartoon "King of the Hill".
M. never doubted for a moment that I could make this huge transition, and never expressed a second's worry about the economic differences between high profile Los Angeles and Garland, Texas. It's a wonderful feeling when someone supports you, and never worries about your ability to set up your own small partnership after years of a different life. As an aside, I have been amused and pleased that my practice ended up being more sophisticated and wide ranging now than then, and yet I get to do "common folk" cases. All the stereotypes about life being a choice between satanic mills and poverty don't really apply to me. I am grateful that my wife saw my vision, and trusted it.
We're like all couples. We fight about some things, and communicate less well about some things. We are much better at buying a home together (I am a good negotiator, she has a good eye) than at putting a bookshelf together (we are both eldest children, certain of the "right way" in such things). But I'm one of those folks who has a good marriage, and I'm sure M. would say the same. I hate that Tolstoi tag about "happy families are all alike" because the process of finding meaning and happiness is the most important and interesting story one can tell. We are still telling one another our story each day. We're both flawed people, in our own, different ways. The story is in the way things work despite the fact that people work things.
When I pick up the phone, and I hear M.'s voice, I'm at home. When we tell one another the stories of our day, we laugh. When someone treats her with far less than perfect civility, I'm incensed. When we walk together, we lose track of time. I think that the best times, sometimes, are the times you lose track of altogether.
I look back at all these words, and see that I again have conveyed only a kind of "musical comedy" treatment, albeit a real narrative, of things you'd frankly just have to meet us to see. But I do not mind that, really--I always try hard to write a journal that anyone could read. I hope only that I have succeeded in one goal--when you read this journal, I hope I've shown there's another life interwoven within its pages, without whom my life would be very much lesser indeed.
My wife wrote a freelance article once for a magazine about a trip we took which included a stop in Russia. Her topic was the siege of St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. Our tour guide had been a child during the siege, when people starved before her eyes and things were so rough. M. made friends with this elderly guide, who had been part of the Soviet tourism machine, and now guided as a private tour guide. M. would never mine the situation, nor seek to invade the woman's privacy. The guide had a bit of natural "pat line", left over from Soviet tourism days. But by the end of the day, they were friends, her story was fully told, and they were both in tears. The magazine did not print the entire, moving story M. wrote of the day at the Blockade Museum and the cemetary where the victims were buried. But I was there for the real story, and I read the real article, that they edited down to fit a travel reader's interests. It's hard to talk about people dying when you're trying to sell tours.
You could not see it in the brief article that ran, though the article was well edited for its audience. But I saw the story unfold, and, like so many publications, the story as it existed far surpassed the story that ended up on the page. I feel that every weblog works that way to some extent, and I hope that this post ilusrates in some small measure the way that respecting M.'s privacy makes mine an edited version as well. I sometimes joke that my own family likes M. better than they like me, but, really, she is quite likable indeed.