We felt so safe there

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with

Through the Minefield

In the risky game of dating, perhaps the scariest of all scenarios is the separated suitor. With the divorce rate here in California at a whopping 60 percent, the reality is that most of us will encounter these fragile creatures. Do we run for the hills when they pursue us or should we take our chances and allow ourselves to succumb?

Being the intrepid soul I am, I opted for the latter. At least these divorced guys didn’t have commitmentphobia, a condition that seems pervasive in these parts. 818 (my nickname for him) charmed me from the get-go. When I learned, after hearing his unusual last name, that he was the cousin of my college roommate it just seemed like a sign that I ought to give this guy a chance, even though he was only nine months out of a nine-year marriage and not yet officially divorced. I called my old friend, Leslie, right away to tell her about what a small world it was and she commented, “He’s getting divorced again?”

Oops, it appeared that I had stumbled upon a twice-divorced, or an almost twice-divorced, as it were. The stakes were even greater here.

818 showed up at our first date with a bag of my favorite cookies and a smile that warmed me. We had that rare instantaneous connection and a comfort level as if we had known each other for years. During dinner, I discovered that he had a “rebound relationship.” Perhaps that was to put my initial concerns to rest. Well, it worked like a charm. Following dinner, he joined me at a business screening for one of the most bleak and morose films that I had ever seen. Was there some foreshadowing at work here?

The following morning, I arrived at work to find a sweet American Greetings e-mail card from him. The day after, a large box of my favorite European chocolate arrived. I was amazed by this man’s unbridled enthusiasm for me. It continued at a fever pitch shortly thereafter when he insisted upon picking me up at 6 a.m. (driving from the North Valley, no less!) to take me to LAX for my weeklong visit to Peru. Upon my return he was there again to get me and provided me with bags of groceries to make me feel welcome.

One month into this risky romance, I learned, over a candlelit dinner at The Ivy, that his nine-year marriage was preceded by seven years of a relationship. Oh no, I thought. This guy is barely out of a 16 year (oy!) liaison. He has barely had time alone his entire adult life. What am I doing here, I thought in horror? 818 assured me that he was ready to be with a woman and that his marriage was “over before it was over.”

818’s unbridled enthusiasm turned into a runaway train careening down the mountain at breakneck speed. A crash occurred as we were nearing the two-month mark. It appeared that intimacy was far too difficult a task for this man. Like a deer caught in the bright glare of blinding headlights, he ran off (without so much as an explanation or a kind goodbye) as if a bloodthirsty hunter was chasing him.

All along I had interpreted his intelligence, generosity and kindness as a man who had it together. When a man says he is ready to be involved, shouldn’t we just take that at face value and believe him? The answer is a resounding no! Most people, and I include myself in that group, are in denial after their marriages break apart. We feel that that we’re ready, even though we wanted the divorce and had been unhappily married. It’s as simple as getting back on that horse. If only it was.

Just months after I separated, I remember getting involved with a man who had been divorced for several years. I was so insulted when after one month of an auspicious start, he announced that the dumbest thing I could do would be to get involved in a relationship.

“Just date and have fun,” he advised. “Trust me, you think you’re ready, but you’re not.”

I realize now, over a year later, that he was completely right. And so was my wise client and friend, Leslie Fram, who wrote in her book, “How to Marry a Divorced Man” (Regan Books, 2003), that most men need two to four years to sort out the pain of their broken marriages.

In the future, I would approach dating a separated/recently divorced man as though I was wading in a swamp full of alligators. You may get through it unharmed — but life is too short. Why even take the chance?

Elizabeth Much is a partner with Much and House Public
Relations, where she runs the entertainment division. She can be reached via
e-mail at emuch@muchandhousepr.com