Monthly Archives: December 2005

Reconciling with Christmas

One of the guys in my men’s group had a birthday last week, and I told him I’d take him to lunch to celebrate. At 4 p.m. on the appointed day, I stopped for coffee at Starbucks – the first time I’d stopped running all day – and that’s when I remembered the birthday.

It’s not that I was overwhelmed with appointments, it’s just that time of year. At the very moment I should have been toasting my friend, I was in Toys R Us, a 4-foot-high basketball goal for my 18-month old grandson in the shopping cart while I searched for books my year-old granddaughter can read in the bathtub. Later, I was in Nordstrom getting a travel jewelry box for my cousin (we’re recommending the stylish red) and coffee cakes for my agents.

Truth is, I’m not a big fan of Christmas. The materialist imperative, the hectic pace, the traffic and the pressure to find the right gift are just a few of the reasons. The uncertainty of my financial situation is another. Money isn’t everything, but having a reliable income stream reduces stress by at least a factor of 10.

A friend of mine, an amateur astrologer, says my problem lies with the stars: Saturn opposes my sun at Christmas, causing fatigue, low spirits and even sadness.

While that may be true, I think the biggest factor is history. There were five kids in my family, all boys. My mother  did all the decorating, shopping, baking, etc., along with all the usual demands of running a home. And while she would start each Christmas season with good intentions, Christmas carols on the stereo, reindeer on the mantle, what I remember were not tidings of comfort and joy, but her weariness and dread.

Christmas Eve was the exception. My mother was in the church choir, and the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service was special.  My father, brothers and I would follow her later, driving through a beautiful Connecticut snowscape that was a suburban update of the Currier & Ives prints. The candlelight, the carols, the enclosing night and the sense of a special occasion filled the air. That, at least in my mind, was what Christmas was about.

The rest – opening gifts, a big family breakfast, watching TV, napping, Christmas dinner — had an anticlimactic air. These were things we did from momentum rather than conviction, and they were never, in my memory, festive.

This came up a few weeks ago at a men’s group meeting where we discussed the stresses of Christmas. I related most to my friend D, whose parents were alcoholics and whose Christmases were always unhappy.

D was trying to change for the sake of his young son, but it wasn’t easy. His mother was coming for Christmas, and he could barely stand to be around her. But she loves his son, and he said,  "I keep telling myself it’s not about me."

"But it IS about you," I blurted out. "You’re important. You DO matter."

One of the blessings of these meetings is that while I may not always have a solution for my own problem – or even a grip on it – I can see it clearly when it manifests in someone else. And so it was in this case.

If D and I wanted a different outcome, it wasn’t Christmas that had to change, it was us. Up to this point, we’d been victims of history. Our past colored our expectations and reality dutifully laid them out just the way we visualized them.

In the children’s film "The Never-Ending Story," a teenaged boy named Atreyu sets out to stop a malaise called the Nothing, which is a metaphor for the failure of imagination. Atreyu, in turn, is being stalked by a wolf-like creature with an extra set of saber-toothed incisors. The wolf is called the Morg, a metaphor that pretty much speaks for itself.

During their inevitable confrontation, the Morg tells Atreyu that "people who have no dreams are easy to control."

To this point, D and I have been victims of our own form of the Nothing. We have been controlled by the memories of past Christmases. But we have a choice: we can grit our teeth and experience the holidays the way they’ve always been, or we can re-imagine and recreate them as we want them to be.

That is the promise of Christmas itself: that we can awaken as Scrooge did on Christmas morning, reborn in a new awareness, resolved to do better and be better.

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Farewell, Michael Evans

There were ushers in the lobby, tall, graying men in dark suits who looked like bankers and wore blue name tags as they handed out the programs. There were teenaged boys in suits and girls in school uniforms. There were adults in somber colors, and a sanctuary awash with yellow light as the late-afternoon sun poured through stained-glass.

There were young acolytes in red surplices bearing candles and a cross on long brass poles. There were priests in long white robes and the family —  wife, daughters, son, daughter-in-law, sons-in-law, grandchildren — all in black.

And at the front of the sanctuary was a polished box of fine-grained wood with golden handles that contained the ashes of Michael Arthur Worden Evans.

Evans was a photojournalist whose beatific photo of Ronald Reagan in cowboy hat appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People. For six years, he was Reagan’s personal photographer, an assignment that included a brush with death when John Hinckley Jr. fired several shots at the president outside a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1981. Thirty-four years later, he was dead of cancer at 61.

Michael and his wife were neighbors and friends of a woman I dated, and we saw them socially several times. Michael was clever and bright, and well-read and deeply attached to the news. His was a world of ideas, of intellect, of conventional wisdom and traditional values. He watched the flux of events and took it personally when things were not good.

But he was also a private man, sociable to a point, but guarded and edgy, and when his tolerance ran out he would stand up and announce it was time to go. I wish I could say I knew him better, but as his son Drew said. "My father was not an easy man to know."

The Episcopalian ceremony consisted in large part of passages read by the minister with responses from the mourners. While it seemed at the time unnecessarily long, I came to appreciate the logic of it. In the call-and-response, the standing and sitting, the speaking and singing, the prayer and the silence, there is structure and familiarity, a sense of continuity that is itself a kind of emotional handrail for the bereaved to cling to. Within the ritualistic acknowledgement of loss, there is also the understanding that life goes on, and an opportunity to begin the healing.

While Michael wasn’t a particularly spiritual man — he wanted proof, not speculation — my friend counseled him intensively in his final days and felt he had come to terms with God.

The Rev. Peter Gorday said during his homily that for years Michael’s wife and daughters regularly took communion, but that Michael refused to budge from his pew. "It’s not my time," he would tell Gorday, adding that while he accepted the idea of God, he had problems with "the Jesus stuff."

"I said, ‘You mean the mythology of Christ, Michael?’ said Gorday. "And he said, ‘No, Peter, the Jesus stuff.’"

Gorday said that as a photographer Michael waited for "the moment that was real," and so it was with his spirituality. His illness generated a tremendous outpouring of love and support that amazed Michael and convinced him that God was reaching out to him.

In the last year of his life, Gorday said, when it came time for communion, Michael would rise with his family, weak and unsteady, and allow his daughters to escort him to the rail where he took the bread and wine.

During her eulogy, 20-year-old daughter Abbie said that the family went to Sea Island last summer, and that one day Michael decided to go into the ocean. They entered the water, Abbie and sister Madelyn on either side, helping Michael as he jumped over or dove beneath the waves. She realized later that they had come full circle. As children, they had clung to their father when they entered the ocean. Now he was clinging to them.

Son Drew, a mild and gentle man of 36,  said that his father’s celebrity had come "at a cost" to relationships with his first family. He also admitted, without acrimony, that he and his father had not gotten along well in Michael’s last year.

"But I loved my father," he said. "I wish I’d had more time to get to know him."

Drew and Michael had also disagreed about music: Michael liked country, Drew preferred rock ‘n’ roll. In closing, the son did something brave and unusual,  a touching gesture of conciliation to his father.

Clearing his throat, he muttered, "I don’t know how this is gonna sound." Then, in a strong but not particularly musical voice he sang the ending of his father’s favorite song: "Country road, take me home/to the place I belong/West Virginia mountain mama/take me home…country road."

Michael’s ashes were interred in the church garden.

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Matchless in Atlanta

Four weeks and four days after it began, my attempt at finding romance on the Internet ended essentially the way it began: loveless. With a few key strokes – and, a few days later, a testy follow-up email – I cancelled my subscription to and put an end to what had become a labor-intensive exercise with correspondents all over the country.

Despite specifying in my profile that I was interested only in women within a 50-mile radius of Atlanta, I had emails from two women in China (Guangzhou canton and Liaoning, for the geographically inclined) and another from Chon Buri, Thailand.

This side of the Pacific, I was contacted by women in California, Washington, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. And more than a few in Georgia who far more than 50 miles from Atlanta.

By the time finally took my profile out of circulation, I’d received 1,448 "views" and somewhere between 200 and 300 contacts. That includes 21 emails sent to me in the two days AFTER my subscription expired, at which point I sent a peevish email and was finally removed from circulation.

From what friends tell me, I got unusually heavy traffic, which may be why was reluctant to see me go. I attribute the traffic to a couple of things.

First, I encouraged it unwittingly by sending notes to some of the women who contacted me. I did so not out of romantic interest, but rather a soft-hearted appreciation at the risk they took in asking to be considered. A friend of mine called it my "ministry."

Second, any man between 50 and 65 who takes care of himself physically and cleans up his personal issues is a rarity, and a hot commodity among women.

What I don’t understand is why so many women ignored the warning in my profile. I wrote that I’d done a lot of work on myself and was looking for someone who had done likewise. Only a handful indicated they had any understanding of what I was talking about.

Beyond that, there is the simple matter of match-making: Take pictures and profiles and put them side by side. Is there a match? Not just visually, but philosophically and vibrationally as well. If not, why take the risk of being rejected? 

The answer, I suppose, is the fundamental optimism of human nature. After all, Mel Brooks wound up with Anne Bancroft. Still, how a jowly woman barely 5 feet tall wearing a billowing, tent-like garment in Fern Creek, Ky., can imagine that a 6-foot-3 fitness freak in Atlanta is the man for her is beyond me.

In my own browsing I came across attractive and interesting women who indicated they would consider no man older than 58, even when they were 54 or 55. I could have written and asked them to make an exception, but it never  seemed important enough to find out.

And maybe that was my problem. I wasn’t sufficiently motivated. I made direct contact with only three women. I had coffee with one, and she admitted that she needed "fixing," which disqualified her. Another was smart and interesting, and could yet prove to be a good friend. But the chemistry wasn’t there. The third reminded me so much of the woman I broke up with earlier this year – sizzling with charisma, but impatient and frenetic – that I bailed out after two brief phone conversations.

A few other things I learned:

One, do not tell a woman she’s too short. I had more angry comments about that than anything else. One accused me of being superficial. Another wrote "dynamite comes in small packages." Well, if I’m going to be superficial, I’m going to do it with someone who doesn’t make my back ache.  And I’ve had enough dynamite in my life; I need something more like Prozac.

Two, some women hide their pictures and insist that you ask to see them. When I chided one woman for it, she wrote that she’d made a lot of friends that way. Well, that’s fine if you’re on I’m looking for a match: show me the photo.

Three, there is something addictive about getting new emails each day and wondering if this is your lucky day. But toward the end, I ran out of good vibes and simply clicked on "Not Interested. " That’s when I figured out, as I wrote to one woman, that I really wasn’t ready for romance.

Her reply put it all in perspective: "Bill, I wish you the best. A——."

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