Does anyone live at 51 Birch Street?

Imagine finding out that your parents, having been married 54 years, were unhappy in almost all of them—and that you had no inkling because they hid it so well.

That’s what happened to Long Island documentarian Doug Block (112 Weddings, The Kids Grow Up) after his mother, Mina, died suddenly in 2002. Equally as sudden was his father’s remarriage three months later to Kitty, who his father had known for 40 years. Seeing the taciturn, 83-year-old Mike Block come alive and lavish affection on Kitty made Doug scratch his head. He sensed a backstory there, so he saw where his camera took him. The result is 51 Birch Street, titled after Doug’s childhood address, a quiet, nuanced, dismal, and riveting documentary about two incompatible people bound by social strictures and a house.

Doug Block delves deep, uncovering his mother’s diaries. Entry by entry, he discovers a Mina he never knew: a vibrant, opinionated woman done with her marriage but resigned to putting on a facade. She had fallen in love with other men and had at least one affair. In one entry, she insightfully writes that husband Mike should have married a woman like Kitty. Compared to the contentment she projects to friends and family, the inner longings in her journals are jarring.

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Mina was likely involved with “Ben” when this photo was taken.

Mike Block is cagier about his relationship with his late wife, becoming evasive when Doug asks him if there had been other women. But when Doug finally captures his father’s honesty, it’s breathtakingly raw. The last segment of the documentary shows Mike puttering in the martial abode. “Earlier in life, I would have died for (Mina),” he says. “Later in life, it meant nothing.” Well, damn.

Most of us are on Facebook and/or other social networking sites. We have married friends, and we assume they’re happy given the information they share. We’ve seen their smiling photographs—vacations, anniversaries, holidays—and then one day their status changes. Divorced. It’s come as a bit of a surprise at times, but we rapidly adapt and wish our friends well.

Mina and Mike Block’s terminal impasse status is impossible for us to wrap our thoroughly modern minds around. These were not people hailing from states of ignorance and megachurches; they were intelligent, well read.

The Block family was, however, a by-product of the dysfunctional 1950s, which possibly explains why Doug and his siblings were confounded by their father’s happiness. The Don and Betty Draper saga is improbable fiction; couples of that generation didn’t readily divorce, not even after the kids grew up. Like living in co-ed apartments and wearing white after Labor Day, it “just wasn’t done”.

The notion that it’s noble to be resigned to who you’re stuck with is odd in 2016. We are fortunate. We no longer abide marriages based on obligation, principle, or a variation of the sunk cost fallacy unless we consciously choose to do so. This intolerance isn’t as much of an expression of Rand-ian individualism as it is the imperative to be honest, transparent, and fair. The 1950s were none of these things.

Mike Block has since passed away, too. He spent seven years in sunny Florida with his Kitty, so he got a smidgen of a happy ending. After watching 51 Birch Street, I felt like I knew Mina and Mike Block. I liked them both equally.  It’s hard not to wonder what could have been for them had they been born a decade later.

It’s also hard not to wonder if other couples their age still live at 51 Birch Street—and if perhaps some of them are people we know.

I’m done with gender wars

I recently followed a topic on a Facebook thread. The original poster, a woman, had complained about the unsolicited photos of men’s genitalia that she received on online dating sites (duh!), and predictably, the entire discussion incited a gender war. A few men jumped into the fray to remind the female combatants that there were men who actually did behave appropriately, and some women were all over that #NotAllMen defense like white on rice, and it was just so ugly, people.

I’m so tired of these pointless, ridiculous, counterproductive gender wars. Just plumb tuckered. I don’t care if it makes me a lousy feminist. I’m burning my draft card. Really.

Look, I understand that women have had some crap experiences with yabbos who view them as mindless, emotionless orifices. Just like I am also certain that men have their own issues with women, those involving money, being expected to “provide”. It’s hard not to stereotype when the grains of truth are enough to fill a silo. Male privilege and female privilege do exist; they are simply and typically executed in different but equally nefarious, usurious, and deceitful ways, and I am sorry that happens. Really.

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Look, I like men. I like women. I like people. I think that we’re mostly good; we have indeed summoned up our deep altruism. If this weren’t true, being thought of as human receptacles or ATMs with a pulse would no longer disturb us. We know we are collectively better than that, and thus, we are offended by all things offensive. Good!

This means the default expectation remains common decency. Sadly, there are men and women—falling under the umbrella of “sentient beings”—with renegade rules of engagement. Reach a certain age, and somebody will have tried to break you down, convince you that objectification is the new black, or couch their behavior as “this is just what we do on this planet”.

Solid people get broken all of the time. Mostly, they get broken by other broken people. Broken people are like a contagion, infecting others who in turn infect others, until everyone is raging in fever trying to prove who has it worse, men or women, women or men. The correct answer is that we both have it worse—sometimes.

I’ve either been fortunate or wise enough to pick partners who engaged me as a peer. But there have been a few memorable misogynists who left me quite breathless. That’s not your fault, other guys. You bear none of the blame because some of your brethren drag knuckles. Sort of like it’s not my fault if some of my sisters are sucking thumbs.

I will also tell you this: I believe that this had far, far less to do with them trying to exert “male privilege” (or whatever …) than it did them being really rotten, bratty, entitled people who happened to be born male. Mommy and daddy didn’t love each other, they got a prize just for showing up, there’s always an etiology. Drop them into a woman’s body and they would be just as wretched to the opposite sex, using different M.O.s.

Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with privilege. Privilege is only wrong when used to further one’s own self-interests.

Divisiveness has engulfed our nation, pitting the 99 percent against the one, white against blacks, and native-borns against immigrants. We don’t really have to take it to the man vs. woman level, do we?

We people don’t always talk about the things that have hurt us and how they have hurt us, but perhaps now we should. To make peace. To secure common decency as a default. If there are just desserts, the people who aren’t engaged in the dialogue—who don’t care to be engaged—will wander away from civilized discourse, pair up, and be miserable in some throw-back Boschian purgatory where everyone’s either yelling or bartering sex for stuff.

Good!

So quite obviously, I do not hate men; I rather like most of them. One of you snagged me a pristine White Mountain ice cream maker for $20 at Goodwill—rock! Another of you dragged me to Cuba to share a wonderful experience. No expectations, and no weirdness. People are good.

Wars start when battles are picked. Let the gender war not be ours.

Childfree dating online: boon or bust?

So I joined a group for childfree singles. My heart hurts whenever a woman posts about coupling up with a childfree man she (finally!) met through a dating site/app only to discover—sometimes years later—that her erstwhile beau was still skulking around the site on the sly all along. Fuck those guys very much. Actually, no. Don’t. That’s what they want.

Some childfree men have gone through this, too. It seems to be a common story.

I was married during the years computer-mediated communication went from Something Only Nerds Do to Hey, This Is Pretty Cool. Online dating was de rigueur by 2010, when I was ready to start over again. The childfree demographic was growing, just not on trees. Moreover, identifying prospective partners in real life was a pointless endeavor. Try it sometime, if you don’t believe me. So on one hand, it’s logical to assume that a childfree single can meet a like-minded partner online, if he or she has the patience of Job makes an honest effort.

On the other hand, when you, oh single childfree person, hit “Subscribe”, you open a veritable Pandora’s Box and unleash the ills of the interpersonal world. See, we call the same shenanigans as our childed and child-wanting counterparts and then more. (Re-read first graf.) If you’ve used these sites/apps, chances are excellent you’ve been duped into a date with a cheating cheater someone who’s married or in a relationship. That’s always a fun one.

People whose profiles state they don’t have kids but really do? Childfree guys seem to get the lion’s share of these hopefuls. Dispiriting messages from strangers shame-shame-shaming us for not wanting kids? Women own most of those.

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Each online dating dilemma warrants its own blog post. I think we can agree that online dating can be all that and a kettle of queso if we do it smart, but also that while exposing ourselves to liars, losers and creeps impacts all singles, it impacts the childfree differently and perhaps more profoundly, because we depend on the internet to find and connect with our “tribe”. We need to trust the data.

When I re-entered the dating world, attractive, emotionally available single men were all over the damned place. They just weren’t childfree. I coffee-dated a few single dads and mid-life fence sitters. Great guys, but it wouldn’t work for the long haul. I needed a childfree life partner, and the best way to meet one was to give online dating a whirl.

Novelist Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” It’s human nature to see others through our own filter, projecting onto them our values, beliefs and motivations. I admit to having loftier expectations of childfree men by virtue of their childfree-ness, which doesn’t necessarily translate into “stellar human being”. I should have checked those expectations at the door.

I just knew my stellar counterpart was out there wondering when I’d show up. This magical golden unicorn of a man had put his ear to the ground and hearing nothing but the tick-tick-tick of biological timeclocks had capitulated to “this stupid online dating stuff” friends warned him against. I imagined him typing his profile with an earnest heart and weary brow, and the flutter of hope he felt when it went live.

Hope. That tiny creature at the bottom of Pandora’s Box.

Welp. I dunno about my imaginary boyfriend, but my expectations of online dating ran laps around the reality. I did meet some incredible childfree guys that live in other states and countries. I lunch with one whenever he passes through town. But I encountered far more men, even childfree ones, who didn’t seem to like women very much. Then I had The Big Bad Experience that only seems to happen when you meet somebody online. Damn it.

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Childfree singles’ opinions of online dating sites/apps are polarized for this reason. They give us access to other childfree singles we wouldn’t have ever met—as well as strangers we shouldn’t. It’s a coin toss, really. Heads you win, tails you lose. And lose. And lose. For every man or woman who met Mr./Ms. Magical Golden Unicorn almost straight away, there are gobs more whose trust got clobbered so hard they vow to stay single for life. Because, jerks among us.

I suppose I could make light of my online dating escapades. It’s only a site! Why take it seriously? Because there’s a spiritual trade-off to deception and betrayal, no matter how it comes about. Our ability to feel is diminished; we lose the capacity, the desire, to know who is of true heart. We risk devolving into our own worst nightmare: the guarded, defensive, ludicrously picky childfree man/woman who rejects others for really dumb shit.

Online dating sites don’t exactly have built-in quality control. Lest we forget, they exist to make money. But if we childfree single folk opt into this madness, we can change the culture. We can start by giving each other more deference. We can be honest about who we are and what we want, so we don’t hurt one of the tribe.

We might not feel the magic with someone. That happens. To simply acknowledge that we have met one of our own, so special and rare, and wish each other well on our respective journeys, is good enough.

We don’t have to be the liars, losers and creeps of online dating. We are the magical golden unicorns of singles, remember—far more than just pixels on a screen—and we can make a better, brighter virtual world.

I hope that we will treat each other well there.

Childfree: is it really a “choice”?

(Dedicated to the wonderful ladies I met in Cleveland — you are The Best Ever!)

If there’s one question I dread more than why I didn’t complete my thesis, it’s being asked why I chose to be childfree. Chose. You know, like I had some say in it. Given my druthers, I would have chosen to be born like most people, with the innate instinct to be a parent. Deep down, I know that having society’s nod of approval would have made life a helluva lot easier.

Some NotMoms and NotDads don’t have kids, unhappily or resignedly, due to life circumstances. They never had a choice. Funny, but I never considered being childfree a “choice” either. I was born a NotMom, as sure as I was born a vertically challenged, heterosexual female with brown eyes and hair. The world has no shortage of tiny, brown-eyed women who get melty when the right guy comes around. But that “won’t have kids” thing … oh, gosh. Try explaining that you’re absent the mommy drive and no, it wasn’t because you have some unbecoming personality disorder or your parents messed you up, and you have a lot more ‘splainin’ to do.

When I was a child, my mom and dad read me a lot of Dr. Suess books. One of the good doc’s quotes is, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” My parents always encouraged me to be genuine, and if I did this, I would make and keep friends. I naively took it to heart, which is why I made the mistake of absently confessing to being a NotMom to a trio of middle school besties.

There we were, four 12-year-olds walking around the phys ed area after lunch. The conversation gravitated to our burgeoning hormones future aspirations. Unsurprisingly, marriage and kids came up. All of the other girls wanted at least three or four children.

“I’m not having kids,” I said absently when it came my turn, stopping everyone dead in their tracks.

“Never?” Sandy, my best bestie asked incredulously. “Why not?”

(Here’s me, shrugging.)

“Are you going to get married?” another gal pal chimed in, looking alarmed.

“Sure, I want to get married.” That was true. I wanted to get married to the cute, popular guy in homeroom, not nerdy Gary Snell, who was always creeping around jingling his I.D. bracelet in my direction. “I’m just not having kids.”

Sandy glared at me like I’d grabbed her 7-Up-flavored Lipsmacker and ground it into the hardtop while the rest of my posse stared at the pavement in a study my memory has captioned: Bewildered Awkwardness. “Well, then … you—you’re just weird,” Sandy sputtered indignantly. “If you get married, you have to have kids.”

Can we pretend I never said that?
Can we pretend I never said that?

I felt like Insta-Crap. I also started to form an unhealthy view of marriage, which was that it was a privilege for those destined to procreate, and not girls like me. If I gamed the system and someone found out, would I be forced to get divorced? Was I forbidden to date, too? That was a bummer. I had my heart set on prom.

It was unwise to allude to being different while growing up in a churchy small town. Really unwise. Until I could flee that environment, I learned that the socially correct thing to say was, “Oh, I want to have at least ten kids—five girls, and five boys!” and squee! like a Duggar I really meant it. Look, I didn’t want my house TP’ed.

I also learned that my friends weren’t really friends.

I was an innocent. Nefarious thoughts like “I need to come up with clearly convincing reasons for not wanting children lest I be labeled ‘weird’ by peers” weren’t integrated into my brain’s wiring. I knew that I knew—just like I knew when I looked in the mirror, I would see a girl with brown hair and brown eyes who was far too concerned with getting pimples and who would like Gary Snell if he were taller, cuter, and didn’t have a lisp.

Now it’s freakin’ 2015—make that 2016. It’s close enough, right? When I was that innocent tween, I thought I would be working in a space station somewhere by the year 2016. We’d live in egalitarian society like you see in Star Trek, where the squandering of skills and talents mattered far more than a person’s inability or unwillingness to conceive. Women could even have blue skin and silver hair!

The Enterprise never became a reality, so I relocated to a true-blue progressive city where it was par for the course to have drinks with a homeless guy named Leslie, who wore a tiara and tutu. It is a community where we “born this ways” can flourish. But in 2016, we must still have a cache of “reasons” on hand when that inevitable question comes: “Why don’t/didn’t you want kids?” Um … children cost too much money. That I don’t have. The planet. I don’t want to maim it by leaving behind a Godzilla-sized carbon footprint. My career, it’s the bombdiggity. I’m too selfish. Too lazy, too crazy, too genetically flawed. I don’t like kids.

None of these things are genuinely true in my case, but I plead guilty to trotting out the “reasons”. Reasons seem to make people less hostile confused. Because I have a warm, smooshy, nurturing personality, inevitably, a well-intentioned childed friend will insist that I never met the “right guy”, triggering that old Insta-Crap feeling. I have to wonder: would that person say I just hadn’t met the “right guy” if I were gay? Why not ask why I wasn’t a runway model while they’re at it?

There’s a lot about ourselves that we can hide, change, and enhance, thanks to the miracle of Alcon, Sephora, and the shoe industry. I can make (and have made) my brown eyes blue with state-of-the-art contact lenses. I can (and have) streaked my hair blond. My Max Studio heels might murder my instep, but they give me temporary leverage. I could have flipped the bird at my nature, had those ten kids, and … I thankfully will never know what would have happened.

I never needed reasons, and those of you who “chose” to be childfree don’t need them either. What thankfully isn’t artificial, and what will never be, is that I am who I am—a NotMom since I was nascent. Childfree by a choice I never actually made.

I was born this way.