A different version of this piece appeared in November 2006.
Several years ago, my friend Lauren came up with a terrific idea: Project Help Us Help Ourselves, a collaborative blogosphere effort to provide a clearing house for information about how to cope with money, scarce resources, and bureaucracy. It elicited some great responses, but is now (alas) no longer available online.
I read Lauren’s proposal, and felt, well, stuck. Though I could certainly use more money, I’ve been blessed with a certain degree of comfort and security. I haven’t had to cope without health insurance, I haven’t fought an expensive custody battle, I haven’t had to worry about the same sort of things my peers have had to worry about. I thought about just linking to Lauren’s post and urging more experienced readers to send in detailed, clear tips on how to negotiate this complex and difficult world. And then I started to rack my brain for what practical things I “know.”
As someone who has spent his entire life in academia (every fall since 1969, when I started nursery school at the “Humpty-Dumpty House” in Santa Barbara, not quite three, I have been either a student or a teacher in some sort of educational institution), I’ve never held a full-time job other than college instructor. I know how to prepare a good lecture. I know how to evaluate written work quickly. I know how to pretend to pay attention in department meetings.
What else do I know that’s useful? I know how to train for and run marathons. I know how to start a weight-lifting program. I could probably teach an introductory Pilates mat class, or a spinning class. I know how to pick the right pair of running shoes. I can dress myself without clashing. Important skills for survival? Uh, no.
What can I do that’s truly useful? I can’t change my own oil. I hate doing any kind of carpentry or assembling. The old WASP joke:
How many WASPs does it take to change a lightbulb?
Two. One to mix martinis and the other to call the electrician.
Yeah, that’s close to home. I can do the light bulb, actually, but I’ve been calling repair people and handy people for virtually everything most of my life. My body may be lean and toned, but the few muscles I have, sadly, rarely get put to practical use.
So now a post designed to link to another post about economic survival has turned into a musing on my own profound incompetence — an incompetence rooted in privilege. (And should I even mention I didn’t know how to pump my own gas until I was… oh, forget it). This paean to learned helplessness isn’t going to win me any friends.
But in addition to knowing how to give a lecture, and knowing how to finish a hard marathon, I know something else far more useful: I know how to start over. Three times I’ve been divorced. Three times, I’ve moved out of a home I shared with a spouse and into a tiny, cramped apartment. Three times, I’ve bought (or rented) furniture. Three times, I’ve raced to Crate and Barrel or Target to buy another set of dishes, another set of pots and pans, another set of sheets. (In general, my exes all kept the housewares.) Three times, I’ve loaded all of my possessions into a car or a truck and driven away to begin again.
Three times, I’ve left a marriage with major credit card debt. Three times, I paid it back down. Obviously, the debts got exponentially bigger each time.
The amount of stuff that I left with after my third divorce in 2002 was considerably more than after my first one a decade earlier. By the third divorce, I could actually pay movers to come and take my things away, something that had not been possible the first two times. Three times, I’ve said goodbye to beloved pets (I had dogs with all of my ex-wives, and they always kept ‘em), and tearfully driven away to start a new life. Trust me, it got harder each time.
I learned that a microwave, a coffee maker, and a fridge are really all you need. (I’ve bought three post-divorce microwaves and two nice Kenmore refrigerators). On my own post-divorce, months would pass and I would never touch a stove. Lean Cuisines can be bought in bulk at Costco — word to the wise. After my second divorce, I lived on Rosarita refried beans, Uncle Ben’s rice, Pace Picante sauce, Knudsen sour cream, and corn tortillas. (What one friend called “the vile concoction.”) I figure each divorce was good for some significant weight loss.
But the real lesson, of course, was that I could survive. If there’s any virtue at all in telling this story, it’s that I have learned that you can begin again — and again — and again. My cousin calls me the “king of starting over”, and after so many years of new beginnings, upheaval, heartache, and separations, I know with every fiber of my being that it is possible to love again, trust again, begin again. It is possible to both learn from previous mistakes and learn to take healthy risks one more time. It is possible to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars; lose out on a vision of a happy future; kiss the Labrador goodbye for the last time as she licks away your tears; spend those first few awful nights in a dingy little over-priced studio; and, after all of that agony, be willing to try again.
Lord willing, I will never, ever, ever get divorced from she who is my wife today. I know so much more about how to be a good and present husband than I did in my first three marriages, and I have married a woman with whom I am spiritually and emotionally and physically profoundly compatible. That’s an unmerited blessing on one level, of course, but it’s also something I earned as a consequence of being willing to learn from my mistakes, being willing to start over, being willing to trust again. Too many folks I know get burned (or burn themselves) a time or three and they give up. Call it stupidity or call it faith or a mixture of the two, but I have a relentless optimism born less of my nature than of my experience. I know that broken hearts heal and that new dishes can be bought over and over again. I know that dollar for dollar, it’s hard to beat Sears brand appliances. I know that having a coffee maker, even a cheap one, is vital for the first morning after you move into your new bachelor quarters. And I know that no matter what, the hurt and pain of any given moment will pass more quickly than I dare hope, and that love and joy and promise can come again and again and again.
This I know.