Ambient Hero

November 18, 2013

Tom Welling as Clark Kent/The Blur (almost Superman) from Smallville series, November 18, 2013. (

Tom Welling as Clark Kent/The Blur (almost Superman) from Smallville series, April 2011. (

In the years between the chronological end of Boy @ The Window (February ’90) and when I began dating my wife (December ’95) of now thirteen and a half years, my relationship life was hit and miss, at times in a silo, and for two of those years, almost completely nonexistent. Grad school took up much of my time and energy, and there were times I barely had the money to catch a bus to campus at Pitt or Carnegie Mellon, much less go out for a dinner and a movie.

It was at the end of ’94, after becoming ABD (All But Dissertation for those not pursuing PhDs) that I felt I finally had the time to take my dating life more seriously. I realized that I’d been separating my sex life from my wanting-a-more-serious-relationship-life. Casual sex was fine, but I still found it more daunting to be in a relationship when I wanted more. So did the women in my life back then.

These realizations came to a head in my relationship with a woman I’ll call AMB for the purposes of this post. I’d known AMB off and on since ’90, as a result of a mutual friend whom I’d worked with during my Western Psych job years. By ’95, she was in grad school herself at the University of Maryland, working on her master’s degree in history. It was a different area in the field, luckily, so no frequent debates about how many historians can dance on the head of a pin.

During that summer and into the fall, we began seeing each other off and on. I found it wonderful at first. After years of grad school, of not even being remotely attracted to anyone who was a historian, I could have a conversation with someone about my doctoral thesis research and about my family at the same time. And all without having to explain it as if I were teaching a class or their eyes glazing over!

But there were issues right from the start. At the time, AMB lived with her mother in Maryland, and with me not owning a car, it was a four-and-a-half-hour trip by bus, longer by train, and costly on a grad school budget if I planned on renting a car. My dissertation research, though, brought me to the DC area frequently. So I visited her in August, October and November, while she came to visit me in July and October as well.

Oscillating balls hitting each other, November 18, 2013. (

Oscillating balls hitting each other, November 18, 2013. (

There was also the matter of her little one. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined working on an M.A. or PhD with a young son or daughter to raise. And although I admired how AMB was juggling, she was also struggling with this as well. Between her ex and the psychological abuse that came with him, her daughter, her mother and grad school, it was no wonder that our phone conversations could turn from boyfriend-girlfriend to psychologist-client on a dime.

The biggest issue, though, was defining the nature of our more-than-friendship as it began to evolve after July ’95. Depending on the week and what set of friends were around, AMB either introduced me as her “boyfriend” or as her “friend.” The first time this occurred, we were around a group of her U Maryland friends during my October visit, the weekend before the Million Man March. But one-on-one or over the phone, she didn’t slip up. I found it a bit strange, even as someone who didn’t date between December ’92 and October ’94.

Then, on AMB’s last visit with me in Pittsburgh, at the end of October ’95, she did it again, at Hillman Library, among a group of our mutual acquaintances and friends. What really clinched it for me, though, was when she added that I was her “hero.” That was a record scratcher for me. Really? How many lives had I saved? Could I shoot laser beams out of my eyes or phase through walls? After having put two younger women on a pedestal in my previous life (Crush #1 and Crush #2, Wendy and Phyllis — see blog), I couldn’t — no, I wouldn’t — allow someone to do the same to me. Especially someone with much more serious issues in her life than dating and high school.

So when AMB invited her up to her hotel room, I came up, but I definitely wasn’t in any mood for anything other than an explanation. She didn’t really give me one then. And three weeks later, after ditching our date to see the Kiss of the Spider Woman musical (it was playing in Baltimore at the time, headlined by Vanessa Williams) by going to see it with her friends two days earlier (all without telling me in advance), I’d had enough.

Vanessa Williams in Kiss of the Spider Woman poster, circa 1994. (

Vanessa Williams in Kiss of the Spider Woman poster, circa 1994. (

On this date eighteen years ago, we had a two-hour phone conversation, where I broke up with AMB. I told her that I’d tired of our “oscillating relationship, where I was just a ‘friend’ one minute, and a ‘boyfriend’ the next.” I told her that she needed to figure out herself and her relations with her ex, her daughter and her mother if she really wanted a more meaningful relationship in the future.

I’d broken off relationships before, but not like this. Mostly, I’d just ignore phone calls and email, or say something so sarcastic that the woman would get the message. This was hard. I was destroying AMB’s image of me as a hero, not just agreeing not to kiss or hug her anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, I was doing what a real hero does, which in this case meant not taking advantage of another human being at their most vulnerable.

Time, Love & Goofy-ness

July 21, 2011

Time, Love & Tenderness Album Cover, July 18, 2009. (Source/Donald Earl Collins)

Sometimes I have no choice but to confirm how weird I am. Especially when it comes to what moves me, including in my choices of music. It wasn’t hard for me to become a Michael Bolton fan when his first solo album dropped in ’87. “That’s What Love Is All About,” a minor hit, was something I enjoyed then, but appreciate much more now as a married man than I possibly could’ve as a freshman at Pitt. “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” well, that’s another story. It’s a fine cover version (something that Bolton grew all too fond of doing in the late-’90s), but nothing will ever replace the Otis Redding original.

The summer of  ’91 was the clincher for me regarding Bolton and other artists from that period. I was in the midst of getting over myself getting over E (see “The Power of Another E” posting from April 2009) when I first heard Bolton’s “Time, Love and Tenderness.” 02 Time, Love and Tenderness.wma I was on my way home from work at Western Psych that hot and sweaty July evening, walking at Warp 3 like I always did back then when the local pop station began playing the song. I also knew the moment I heard it how schmaltzy it was. But it was exactly what I needed to hear and at the time I needed to hear it. I fell in love with the song immediately, and would eventually by the album. “Time, Love and Tenderness” remained one of my pre-iTunes playlist songs for the next three years.
Thus began a year-long odyssey of inviting new music into my life, music that would represent the more adult, contemporary, cool, eclectic and schmaltzy graduate school me. Bolton’s Time, Love and Tenderness album was just the first step. The months of July and August ’91 included music from Seal

My iPod, July 21, 2011 (Source/Donald Earl Collins). Every song named here is on it, but rarely do I play them consecutively.

(“Crazy” — I’ll talk about more in another post), Lenny Kravitz (“It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”), Vanessa Williams (“Comfort Zone”), and Mariah Carey (“Make It Happen”). Not to mention PE (“Can’t Truss It”), Naughty By Nature (O.P.P.), and Boyz II Men. It was the beginning of a new period of music experimentation for me, all caused by me tiring of being the odd wheel in a sea of dating friends.

It was the early ’90s, and I could already see how much music was changing. Fewer synthesizers, a faster more rhythmic pace, a much greater fusion of genres and styles. Heavy metal was morphing into grunge and White booty-call songs were turning into passion tales of White male (and female) angst. Whitney Houston’s music was becoming hip, and Michael Jackson was steadily making himself less popular. With me weeks away from beginning grad school, I felt like I’d found theme music that would fit nicely with my times.
Within a year and a master’s degree of “Time, Love and Tenderness,” I would add Grover Washington, Jr. and Jon Secada to my growing and eclectic music collection. Jon Secada? For many fans of the Miami Sound Machine (Gloria Estefan, et al.) not to mention various subgenres of Latino music and Latino fusion, Secada might as well have been Neil Diamond or Michael Bolton. But for me, it gave me a window into other forms of music that I didn’t have or understand before. The dogged and soaring passion with which Secada sang his “Just Another Day” I’d only heard in gospel or with divas like Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston and — in the first two years of the ’90s — Mariah Carey. Men didn’t sing like that, certainly not in pop music!
I became enthralled with Secada and Bolton, Grover and Mariah, so much so that I continued to branch out. Coltrane, Celine Dion, The Cranberries, Sarah McLachlan, Pearl Jam, Tupac, grunge, world music, New Age — Deep Forest, Enya, Enigma — along with neo-soul — Maxwell and Erykah Badu — were all in my collection by the time I finished grad school.
Still, I needed my schmaltz, and I still do. Michael Bolton, for all of his vanity and overestimation of his voice (he’s done duets with Patti LaBelle and Celine Dion, for goodness sake’s), has been a part of my musical memory for twenty-two years. “Time, Love and Tenderness,” for all of its ’80s-esque quirks, is by far my favorite song by Bolton. It made the second half of the summer of ’91 not only bearable, but fun. It reminded me of how innocent I still was, of how it was a must that I keep my heart open to the possibility of love, even though I would undoubtedly get hurt from time to time.
Life is like that sometimes, and in my case, most of the time. I find myself learning more from loss, more determined because of betrayal and more committed when others tell me I can’t do something, like earning an advanced degree or doing a job successfully. For those times, schmaltzy music is often where I revert to for strength and encouragement, for the ability to move forward.


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