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Dating with Dad: A Reluctant Son's 'Assisted Loving'

When Bob Morris' widowed father decided to start dating again — at the age of 80 — guess who found himself sorting through the personals? In Assisted Loving, Morris chronicles the search for Dad's new Ms. Right — and his own misadventures in the romantic jungle that is Manhattan's gay ghetto.

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Other segments from the episode on May 28, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 28, 2008: Interview with Bob Morris; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE May 28, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bob Morris on dating alongside his elderly father and
his book on the topic, "Assisted Loving"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maybe you know what it's like to lose an
elderly parent and feel a sense of responsibility for your surviving parent.
That's kind of what Bob Morris' new book is about, although much of the book,
and the premise itself, is pretty funny. When Morris' father was 80, he
decided to start dating again. He asked Bob to go through the personal ads
written by older women and select a few women that looked promising. Bob
agreed, thinking, `If my father's happy then I don't have to worry about his
being lonely, then I can have some peace and be left along to my life.' Bob
was in his mid-40s at the time and writing a column in The New York Times
Sunday Style section, but he, too, was looking for a partner. Bob was using
gay dating sites on the Internet. Bob Morris' new book is called "Assisted
Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad."

Bob Morris, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BOB MORRIS: Thank you.

GROSS: I really like the opening of your book. It starts at your mother's
grave about a week after her death. You're there with your father, and he's
just sung a tender version of Irving Berlin's song "Always." And then he makes
you an offer. I'd like you to read from that part of the opening of your book
after he makes--well, when he makes you that offer.

Mr. MORRIS: (Reading) "`I have to tell you something important,' Dad says."

"`What's that?'

"`Well, there's a plot for you here, Bobby. I bought it for you years ago on
my way to my Tuesday tennis game, so now you know you can be buried here with
your mother and me when your time comes.'

"I nod. I'm touched at the sweetness of his gesture, but then I'm ashamed to
find myself thinking, the last thing I want is to be buried on the south shore
of Long Island for all eternity--unless it's the Hamptons, of course. But
what kind of son would say that?

"`Well, it's a very nice offer, Dad,' I tell him. `But what about Jeff?' My
brother. `He'll want to be buried here with you and mom, too, won't he? Will
there be room for all of us?'

"`Well, your brother has a family of his own, Bobby, and they live in
Westchester,' he says, `and they really love it there. But you, since you're
alone and probably won't have a family of your own, I thought you'd want to be
buried here with us.'

"Well. It's a nice offer, and I know I should probably just thank him for the
hospitality then let him give me one of his father-son bear hugs he hopes will
bond us. I mean, he's talking about wanting me at his side forever in the
hereafter, and I'm thinking of telling him I have other plans? Sure, my life
has always been a little too busy to include him comfortably, but my death?
There's every reason why I should just agree to his loving and lovely
proposal, but I can't do it. I can't just say `thanks' and hug him back."

GROSS: And that's Bob Morris reading from the beginning of his memoir about
his father, "Assisted Loving."

Why couldn't you, Bob? Why couldn't you accept being buried there?

Mr. MORRIS: I just didn't like the scene. There's a lot of traffic noise,
and I'm a very light sleeper, which I explained to him. And it was flat. It
just, I have a very heightened sense of what I like and I think that was the
core conflict with my dad and me our whole lives.

GROSS: Wait a minute. Isn't it also really about wanting to spend eternity
on your own terms and not necessarily on your parents'?

Mr. MORRIS: I think so, yeah.

GROSS: I mean, it's like you really want to be accommodating, but when you're
talking about eternity, I mean, I don't even know if you want to be buried.

Mr. MORRIS: Right next to your parents. Yeah. But consider this, Terry,
and this really is the arc of the book. Consider how great it would be to be
able to just let it go and say yes. You know, for every request that annoys
you, whether it's, you know, for you to tell them the last name of the person
you're dating when you really don't want to or whether, you know, my father
used to push pills on me. Every time I sneezed, he would pull out these
prescription pills. And I, you know, I kept saying no, but, you know, what's
the difference? If I was sneezing from allergies, maybe he knew something I
didn't know. I mean, maybe he did. He had 40 years on me. So, you know, on
his terms, instead of mine, I think was kind of the goal I set for myself in
the year that my mom died.

GROSS: Well, you know, your father outlived your mother and he had a hard
time being single, and you took on more responsibility for him than you ever
had before. He was dividing his time between an assisted living facility on
Long Island and his home in Palm Beach. What was the most difficult parts for
him of being a single man, being a widower after your mother died?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, it turns out that this is totally common demographically,
by the way, that there's a standard phrase that, when a spouse dies, men
replace and women mourn. So what he wanted was romance. He wanted to hold
somebody's hand at the movies. He wanted to have meal with somebody, probably
some early bird special for 11.95. What else? He wanted to dance with
somebody. He loved singing to people, and I think, in a strange way, I became
that person in that year he was alone. I mean, he was full of life and he
wanted to move on.

GROSS: And he was around 80 then, right?

Mr. MORRIS: He was 80, yep.

GROSS: And you describe him living like a bachelor. Like, describe how his
home environment changed after your mother died.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, he was finally--he was free to leave the mess that he
wanted to leave his whole life. I went to visit him on Long Island in the
kitchen and couldn't believe that there were almost things growing out of
dishes. And there was piles of paper on the floor, like a garden of papers on
the floor, and underwear and everything else, and it didn't bother him at all.
This was his natural state. He had reverted to his natural state, which is
not to say that he was terrifically neat at all around my mother. In fact, he
wasn't. But now he could finally do it guilt-free.

GROSS: It's really hard to negotiate the change in relationship when you're
the adult child and not the child-child, and I think where that becomes
particularly clear sometimes is after one of your parents died and you
naturally get much closer to your surviving parent than you've been before
because they need your help in a way they didn't before. And they need...

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

GROSS: ...your companionship in a way they didn't before. But were you
already like an adult-adult in your father's eyes, or were you still like
negotiating, trying to convince him that you weren't just like his son
anymore, you were an adult, too?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, here's the thing. I mean, being single and also being a
writer who worked at home, these were two things that really, in his eyes,
made me much more available and not completely the solid citizen that my
brother with his family and business to run and country house was. So I think
that, in his eyes, I was simply a fabulous source of entertainment and, you
know, to my credit I think I was. I made sure that if we didn't have anything
to talk about, that we would have sing-alongs. I'd play the ukelele. I would
would sit at the piano in the lobby of his assisted living building and play
songs for everybody. And it seemed to me that even though we could be bored
with each other, that songs filled in the gap beautifully--for us.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: So, I don't know. I think I became more of a friend in that
last year when he didn't have my mom around.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned how you would sing for him and do sing-alongs if
things got dull. You quote a lyric that you wrote for his birthday one year.

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Would you sing it for us?

Mr. MORRIS: Sure. He used to write parodies all the time so this is
in--definitely in his keeping tradition.

(Sings) Papa, Viagra pill
Medicare pays the bill
Hello, 80
Doggy bags in the fridge
Early birds late for bridge
Hello 80
Can't complain, life doesn't need improvement
I just had a perfect bowel movement
Replace a hip, find a wife
Lots to do late in late
Eighty, hello

GROSS: That's great. Did he like it?

Mr. MORRIS: That was very Dad. Well, I think he actually nixed it. You
know, he's a very controlling person. That was the source of a lot of our
fighting.

GROSS: So it was only three months after your mother's death that your father
decided he wanted to meet somebody, and he enlisted you to help him navigate
through, you know...

Mr. MORRIS: Right.

GROSS: ...Internet dating. But let's start with, how did you feel about your
father wanting to meet somebody new only three months after your mother died.
And I should mention, your mother had been, you know, very sick, you know, for
a long time. In that sense, I suppose he was prepared for and expecting her
death because she...

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. I mean, I think so. And you know, how it happened was
that I was visiting him one night and he actually ripped out a page from a
free weekly newspaper with ads circled of these women that he thought looked
good for him, and to his credit, they were all within his age range. So, you
know, I looked them over and he said, `Would you call these women on my
behalf? I really don't know how to do this sort of thing.' And I was
appalled. And so my feelings about that three months after the death of my
mother were complete confusion, especially as a single person. I just
couldn't imagine why he wouldn't want some time and some space to himself and
to reflect on the 50-year marriage he had with my mother. So I was very put
off by it.

But, secretly, in the depth of my heart, I also wanted his happiness. There's
a level of selfishness that he and I share, I have to say. We're both very
self-absorbed people who are in it for a good time. And so part of me was
rooting for his happiness, you know, because I didn't want him to be lonely,
and then, if he wasn't lonely, then I could be left alone to be lonely
my--left alone to be happy or I don't know. In that case, I wasn't even very
happy. But I thought, from almost a clinical perspective, if he was out of my
hair then I wouldn't be so intruded upon by him. So it was a combination. It
was confusion. Appalled that he would want to replace my mother so quickly,
and also secretly thinking, this might do us both a lot of good.

GROSS: So, what was your job in helping to find your father dates?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I was definitely a sounding board. You know, in New York,
when you go to a party, afterwards you have a post-mortem, which means you
just talk about how it was. And so after ever date he would certainly call
me. And I actually did solicit a few, which is why I thought was, for a
while, was pimping for my father. And I did solicit a few women, you know. I
published a column in The Times about him and some senior lady tracked me down
and tried to force herself upon him, you know, trying to get his phone number
out of me. But I didn't like the sound of her voice and I wasn't very
cooperative, but, you know, she found him anyway.

I would be a very intense little screener. So, you know, if I thought
somebody sounded good, I would push. If it sounded like it could be a
problem--you know, maybe with problematic children who liked to shoot guns.
There was one whose son was a gun hobbyist and you know, another one who came
from a family of just medically really unwell. And I thought, well, this
isn't very--this won't work for me, you know. If he's going to create a new
relationship with a woman and if he's at the end of his life, I want to have a
good time with her and him. So what if he--you know, I couldn't trust his
taste, you know. He would go out with almost anybody. He was a very open
fellow. So...

GROSS: So how did you...

Mr. MORRIS: I got invested in his dating.

GROSS: How did you present yourself on the telephone, like as if you were
like the personnel director doing the screening interview for a job applicant?

Mr. MORRIS: No, no, no. Here's how it would go. I mean, he would give me a
couple of names from a personals page, and I would call and get their voice
mail. And then I would hear this accent that I didn't approve of. You know,
`Hello, this Blanche, you know, leave a message and a...(unintelligible).
Goodbye.' Or whatever. And I would hang up and I thought, no good, not for
our family. You know, I mean, where my snobbism comes from, I have no idea.
Certainly not from him, but--so, I would do that, and then a couple of women
did call me, and I would try to steer them away. One said, you know, `I look
great for my age and I really know how to please a man.' And I thought, Jesus,
do I want to hear this from a 75-year-old pushy broad from the Upper East
Side? You know, so I said, `Look, I don't think it's going to work.' And that
was the one who tracked him down. And he ended up dating her. He took around
in Florida for a while. Yeah. He was a kid who couldn't be controlled, my
dad.

GROSS: So what were the personal ads like of your father's generation?

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, I think some of them are quoted in the book. But they
all--a lot of the women were looking for a man who was financially secure.
And "nice attractive widow loves to cook, loves to sing, looking for romance.
You must be a gentleman." Pretty basic stuff. Lots of code words, I think, in
there to indicate that sex wasn't necessarily on the table, but...

GROSS: How could you tell from--what was the code?

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, you know, looking for--hand-holding is fine.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Your father finally did meet somebody who he had a real relationship
with.

Mr. MORRIS: Mm-hmm. Yep.

GROSS: And what was it like for you when you saw him as part of a different
couple, with, you know, a woman who wasn't your mother?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, it took my breath away. I can still remember meeting her
for the first time. And we met down by the Hudson River. There's a park
there overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and we met in an Italian restaurant,
and I was so nervous. I walked in, and there they were sitting together,
looking as happy as if they'd been together forever. And, you know, I was
concerned about what she was wearing and the tone of her voice, and I think at
some point she tried to get a free refill of her espresso, which I found kind
of embarrassing. But pretty soon I could see that they were just so
comfortable. They were holding hands under the table and I think there was a
little bit of sing--he sang to her a bit. And she just loved it. She was
basking in all the things I loved about my dad. And so when I left them, I
felt so--I felt so alone, but so content because it was really the first time
I had left him with a new woman and I knew that he was going to be OK.

GROSS: When you were younger, could you ever imagine him doing that, you
know, like having a relationship with a woman and not marrying her?

Mr. MORRIS: I could only imagine him having a relationship with a tennis
racquet. He just--that was it. That's what he was married to. He was a very
faithful man and, while a good-looking guy and an attractive guy, there was
this true devotion to my mother. My mother had been quite beautiful, and they
fit just so well. I mean, I look at these photographs now--you know, they say
when your parents die, like something--well, something that I did was that I
took out all the photographs of them when they were well and young, and those
are the ones I live with today. That's how I want to remember them. And they
were a beautiful couple.

GROSS: Did your parents bicker a lot?

Mr. MORRIS: They weren't bickering a lot, but what happened was that all of
us needed to let my father have his way, and I would say that he was often
right, maybe 80 percent of the time, but he wasn't one to be crossed. And so
the tricky thing in watching my parents was to watch my mother subjugate
herself so thoroughly in his presence. But, you know, he had a tough life.
He didn't have parents himself. You know, he lost both his parents by the
time he was 10. And you know, in getting older I started to want to just give
him more of the benefit of the doubt.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: So, you know, if he got cross with my mother, well, so did I.
You know. I would tend to be critical and nag and then instantly realize that
I shouldn't have said what I said. Have you ever done that? I mean, it's
very hard, to keep control of yourself and treat your parents with the respect
that they deserve. And I had deserving parents. You know, I never had--there
was no abuse of any sort. I mean, I often think that's why I never wrote a
memoir until now. Because they just didn't--I abused them. I made them put
me through an Ivy League school. I mean, what more abuse could you have
financially than that? You know, I just didn't have any real complaint. So
why did it take me till 45 to know that and just to kind of applaud them and
let them know how happy I was with them? There was always seemed to be
something that I would criticize.

GROSS: Well, had they tried to make you an extension of them in some way?
Did they object to ways that you were different from them?

Mr. MORRIS: Not at all.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, I was a very lucky. I, you know, I called my father
"the most Democratic Republican." He was just open.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: When I was in college and I realized that I was gay, he came up
to my room and he very gently opened up that conversation. Can you imagine?
I mean, this was in the '70s. It wasn't easy. It's something that could have
stuck badly with me for years. And he just opened it up. I mean, what better
exchange could you ask for?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: So, no. Of course, I mean, they had their issues with me, but
they were very proud of me. These were parents that made it easy for a kid to
feel successful.

GROSS: Oh, boy. There's a scene I love, and you're with your father at the
bank. And your father has obviously shown your New York Times clips to like
every employee at the bank.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And now you're there in person and he's making this big fuss and
expecting everybody to fuss over you and you're like horribly embarrassed by
the whole thing.

Mr. MORRIS: Terrible. Yep. Yeah. He would drag me around to any of his
banks, whether they were in Palm Beach or Long Island, and, you know, he would
say, `Oh, this is my son Bobby, and this is Debbie, she's the manager and
she's a huge fan of your columns, Bobby.' And I'm thinking to myself, she
probably doesn't even know they exist except that you are my biggest clipping
service. And so he would send them around all over the country. You know, I
knew that I--yeah, he was promoting me. I think he thought of himself as my
manager. I can't tell you the amount of conversations we had where he was
trying to press ideas on me to write about.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: And, you know, it was only in the later years that I just said,
`That's a good idea, I'm going to do that.'

GROSS: So, while your father was dating and you were helping him find
appropriate dates, you were also looking for someone yourself, and you were
using personals and Internet dating services...

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...and stuff.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes.

GROSS: So what was the difference between the kind of ads you were responding
and the kind of ads he was responding to?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, OK, here's the truth of it. I mean, yes, I was--I didn't
have time to go to the bars anymore or parties to find people, and so Internet
dating has become very useful. But one of the things about it is that it's
visually driven, so I was on a Web site called nerve.com, which is kind of
writers, New York-based, a good crowd. But you know, everybody was posting
photos. And so what it allows is for you to be the most superficial person in
the world. You just say, `Oh, I like redheads. Let's look into that. Let's
get excited about this and try to start an exchange with somebody,' basically,
who wasn't anything like me because, as I say, I'm not my type.

You know, so eventually--now my dad, I think that he was up for anything. It
didn't matter. See, he was open. He would try anything. I asked him about
that, you know. `Why aren't you a little more picky?' He said that everybody
deserves a chance. So he was much more, much more open about that. And for
me, I would go on these dates and they would always end in disappointment.
Either somebody wouldn't follow through or I would think, ugh, that guy has
love handles. I don't like that. Even though I have them myself. So it was
a lot of card and discard for me. And for him, it was--actually he did the
thing that you're supposed to do on dates, which is, you know, give somebody
more than one try.

So he would go for--I'll tell you, bridge player, probably a necessity. Like
to have, you know, liked slim, I would guess, but what I loved about him was
that he once was totally crazy about a woman who was 86 years old. He was 81.
She was older than he was, and he was crazy about her. And the thing that
bugged me about it is that she had two other boyfriends at the same time, so
she was three-timing him although very open about it. And he was very
accepting about it and he would jump when she would call and just be delighted
and then kind of wait quietly and hope that she would call again. And I
thought, this is an alternative universe, these seniors in Palm Beach. You
know, how is that acceptable in my book that somebody would jerk him around
like that? But he didn't feel that way. I mean, he said to me, `Look, she
makes me happy and I'll take what I can get for now.'

GROSS: You met your partner through--was it personals or Internet service? I
can't..

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, on nerve.com...

GROSS: Yeah, OK.

Mr. MORRIS: ...on the Internet. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So tell us the story about how you met...

Mr. MORRIS: OK.

GROSS: And this is during the same period that you're writing about with your
father.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes, very much so. And I'll tell you something. We had our
first date, and when we finally saw each other, knew each other's names, we
actually knew each other through the writing world. But I took him for drinks
and, again, because he kind of looks like me, immediately--you know, I'm not
my type so he wasn't my type, but what I fixated on was that he has a mother
who was single who lives in Great Neck, around the corner from my dad. And
she drove, which was a real plus, you know, that she would be that active. He
had an active, lively mother around the corner from my father, and I started
to nag him that I wanted her name to set them up. So that's what happened on
my first date.

GROSS: What a way to start...

Mr. MORRIS: How do you like that? And then we...

GROSS: Did you set them up? Did they get together?

Mr. MORRIS: No. Because she is a strident Socialist from the Bronx and he's
a Republican from Long Island, and I wasn't going to have it. But I did try
to set him up in his building with other women all the time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: But what happened with me and my partner, Ira, is that it was a
process of learning, learning how wonderful he is. It was not instant. And I
know that people go on dates all the time and they dismiss somebody after one
date, or maybe they sleep together once and that's it. They make a decision,
and this to me--I was just finally old enough and so encouraged by how my dad
was vital and really in love with the idea of love that I gave it an extra
amount of care and time this time, and I would express my hesitancies with my
dad about Ira because, of course, he was all over it. You know, he wanted to
know all about this, and, you know, I would say, `Oh, you know, I don't know,
he's this or he's that,' and he would say, `Stop.' My father would say, `Stop
looking for perfection, Bobby. It's the only way you're going to find it.'

And I kind of did, and then I realized that love is actually--you know, I read
someplace about how falling in love, the idea of falling in love, it doesn't
really require much energy, does it? I mean, you're just falling. But making
it work, that's a real decision that you have to make. And so for the first
time in my life, as my dad was looking for love, too, I finally found it. I
mean, it was incredible. It was a twin love story, really.

GROSS: When you were still doing the Internet service, you know, the Internet
dating, before you met your partner, you were using, as I guess most people do
for this, you were using an Internet name, an alias.

Mr. MORRIS: right.

GROSS: And you say in your book that, you know, was important to you because
you didn't want people to know who you were...

Mr. MORRIS: No. No.

GROSS: ...who were reading the personals, and you liked to keep your dating
life and the rest of your life separate. And I...

Mr. MORRIS: Well, very much so, but I have to tell you one thing. Yes, I
had a secret name and so did Ira, you know, and these days we have caller ID
on the phone so as soon as I made that very first call after we'd been
e-mailing to say hello, which is the next step after you think you like each
other, after you e-mail for a day or two. So I called him, and the first
words out of his mouth were `Not that Bob Morris!' Because he knew me. I
guess he had read me in the paper and didn't like what I was writing, you
know.

GROSS: Oh, really? He didn't like it?

Mr. MORRIS: I was busted. I was busted. And then, then, there's a real
problem, because if you go on the first date and you behave as abhorrently as
we always do on first dates, meaning you just dismiss it and walk away from
it, suddenly now there was a little something deeper because we were within
each other's social spheres. So I had to behave myself, although he tells the
story that he can't stand the fact that I was drinking vanilla martinis. He
thought that was the grossest thing he'd ever seen.

GROSS: It's just so creepy, though, isn't it, to have people judge you by
your photograph?

Mr. MORRIS: Hm. Yeah. Look, I was 45 years old. I had a paunch. I was
entitled to looking 45, and the fact is, I wasn't so good at competing. I
found the perfect, perfect soul mate who totally, you know, not only is
terribly attractive to me and he is attracted to me, but we also shares so
much. You know, we have so much in common.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: We can sing together. I mean, the fact that I found out--Ira
never considered himself a singer, but imagine when we were sitting in the car
driving someplace and I started to sing something and he could keep a harmony
perfectly. I was in such shock because it was just like my father. I
couldn't believe it. I was marrying a part of my father there.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: And it took my whole life to see that that is actually a worthy
person.

GROSS: Did you get to know your father in a way that you never got to know
your mother? Because your father outlived your mother and, you know, as a
single man, you took on responsibility to help him and to keep him company...

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's just...

Mr. MORRIS: Absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, when they--first of all, you know, my mother was sick
for a long, long time and my father was not the ideal husband in that he
wanted to keep playing bridge and he wasn't very good at organizing the pills
for her and he needed a break. And I respected that so much, and I put myself
in the role of allowing him to talk to me. So I was his confidant about all
of these stresses he was feeling with this terribly downhill situation with my
mom. So even when she was alive, he and I would take drives and I would make
sure to invite him out for dinner alone so he could vent.

And then once she was gone, you know, the air was clear for us to start again,
because, you know, she couldn't stand the way we would argue and it made it
very hard, but suddenly when she was gone, the stress of his life was
relieved, you know. He didn't have to feel so terrible about a woman he loved
who was so sick. And so we had a little buddy movie that started to happen
between us. You know, we would take drives together, and I would always fight
with him because he never wanted to get out of the car and go for a walk. But
fine, you know, we would go to beautiful places on the north shore of Long
Island, and he would be overjoyed to just spend the day with me and pop his,
you know, Frank Sinatra CDs into the CD player in the car and drive.

And then I would hang around with him when he was surrounded by all these
women at his assisted living place in Great Neck, you know, and I would find
myself saying to him, `Hey, what do you think of that one, Dad?' I mean, one
day I was sitting with him in his favorite park on Long Island Sound, and this
woman who I thought was very attractive, this senior lady was walking past us,
and we were sitting there on the bench, minding our business, and, you know, I
could see his eyebrow go up when this nice lady in a nice cashmere twin set
was walking past, and I couldn't get it in me to stop her to chat her up so
that she could say hello to my dad, but for him, it was no problem. He was
just like, `Hello there, how are you? Nice day.' And she stopped, and they
had a chat, and I thought, wow, I really could learn something from him. If I
was at a party and I saw somebody cute who was on his own, you know, it would
be wonderful to just be able to step up and say hello. So I actually learned
a few things when I was finally open to it and we weren't worried about my mom
so much.

GROSS: Did you and your father fight a lot? And, if so, did what you fought
about when he was an older man after your mother died and you were trying to
help him, were those fights different from the fights you'd have when you were
younger?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. When I was younger, my father would say something that
made me roll my eyes, and so he felt judged for being foolish by his
oh-so-wise son, and he would not like the negativity. Or if he decided that
we were going to exit a movie theater one way and I wanted to go another, I
mean, literally, that ended up with me jumping out of a car on Federal Highway
in Florida because it escalated to such a fight, fight over little things.
Where to turn to get to the airport. Being late for a train that he was
driving me to. These are all the huge conflicts that we had.

In the last year, we didn't fight as much, but I would tell him to `please
stop flirting with that waitress. She is busy. You see this restaurant is
full. What makes you think that she wants to hear from you?' But ultimately I
remember one day when we were starting to go at it and I was--I could see he
was getting very disturbed by my being critical. And I do remember that
suddenly I threw my arms around him and hugged him and I said, `Hey, let's not
do this anymore.' And that was a big moment for me. I know it sounds
ridiculous, but it was a big moment in the parking lot of his bank.

GROSS: Did he expect to get his way, and was it hard for you to assert your
own point of view?

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, I think that was exactly true for both of us. We both
wanted our own way.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: And so it was really--I think that it did become a process for
me of stepping up and being the more mature of the two of us, and allowing it.
I remember one Father's Day my family was in shock because he kind of turned
into King Lear and kind of--what did he do? Ah! He was trying to control a
theater project I was doing. He said, `Don't do that one. You should do this
one.' You know, `Here, I'll write you a check just to show you how supportive
I am.' And I said, `But, Dad, you know, I've got this off-Broadway producers
and this is going to happen,' and he just--he looked at me and he said, `Look,
I'm your biggest fan. You should know that. But you also should know that
I'm going to be the biggest supporter that you are ever going to have your
whole life.' Meaning, `You're not going to amount to much, Bob Morris, you
know, so you should really take it where you get it.' And, you know, my
brother and Ira and my brother's wife just were in shock. You know, he
basically put the curse on me. And I became a very big boy and, you know,
went to his car to say goodbye to him and gave him a hug and said,
`Let's--we'll talk.' And it was, I don't know, it was cool to be able to do
that. It's cool to...

GROSS: As opposed to be getting angry and...

Mr. MORRIS: Getting angry and trying to defend myself...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: You know, give the guy a break. You know, he's 80 years old and
if he says some foolish things that are perhaps to others unforgivable, it was
great to be able to just forgive him.

GROSS: The book ends with your father still alive and in a relationship with
a woman named Doreen, but...

Mr. MORRIS: Which has been changed to protect the innocent.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So that's not her real name. But your father has died?

Mr. MORRIS: Correct.

GROSS: How did your father die?

Mr. MORRIS: He had a congestive heart failure situation where he was just
getting weaker and weaker, and he had decided that he didn't like being
compromised that way. And so he just kind of checked out for the last year
and got very quiet and sullen and depressed, and, you know, that was the year
when I was working overtime to sing to him and keep him happy and let him that
that it was fine that he was miserable. I understood, you know. And, in
fact, I encouraged him to vent and let it all hang out.

GROSS: Were you with him when he died?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. I was a very lucky man in that way, but with both my
parents, my brother and I were at their bedsides. Now, with my father, who
had sung with me my whole life, finally he was tired and he was so happy to be
drifting out. You know, he had been waiting for this for a year, And my
brother asked me to sing to him. And I said, `I don't know, Jeff. I feel
like he's tired.' And my brother said, `No, no, no. You really should sing.'
And I said to my dad who was drifting off into a morphine kind of ether, you
know, `Do you want me to sing?' And Dad said, `No, no singing.' But I sang to
him anyway at my brother's request and was very angry about it because I
figured, you know, this moment should have been controlled by my dad. But it
was also at that moment that I realized how much I loved my brother and that,
you know, death is for the living, if you think about it. You know, my
brother needed to see me sing to my dad again, and my dad was fine with it.

GROSS: What did you sing to him?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, let see. Probably something very simple like "You Are My
Sunshine," or the kinds of songs that we all sang to my mom...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: ...when she was dying.

GROSS: So, you know, Father's Day is coming up. Are you going to do anything
for Father's Day in memory of your father? And in the Jewish religion on the
anniversary of a parent's death, you light a candle.

Mr. MORRIS: Hm. Light a candle. Also...

GROSS: Do you do that?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah! And the cemetery where he's buried on Long Island is
conveniently located on the way to the Hamptons.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: So I get to stop in, and when I don't stop in I always toot the
horn and wave. But I'll probably be stopping by to see him that Sunday, which
is, I think, June 15th. I'm also doing a reading at a bookstore out in East
Hampton the day before Father's Day. And I will certainly find myself
singing.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MORRIS: Even to myself.

GROSS: One more question. When we started the interview, you did a reading
about how your father, after your mother died, told you that he'd bought you a
plot for you next to them so that you could be next to them for eternity. So
what are your plans now? Are you going to be buried next to your parents?

Mr. MORRIS: Those are definitely my plans, and the funniest thing was that
my dad said to Ira, once he knew that we were a couple, that he had gotten a
plot for him, too, so that we could all be buried together for a nice visit at
the end. And Ira had always planned on being cremated and having his ashes
thrown into the Great South Bay, which is his favorite body of water. But
apparently he's agreed to it. So, you know, there'll be four of us there
together. Not fighting and not worrying about how noisy the traffic is from
the nearby highway because we'll be dead.

GROSS: Right. Bob, it was great talking with you. Thank you very much.

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Bob Morris is the author of the new memoir "Assisted Loving." He's a
contributor to The New York Times Sunday Style section.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the meaning of marriage
TERRY GROSS, host:

The recent decision by the California Supreme Court legalizing same-sex
marriage has sent people to their dictionaries as they argue over what the
word marriage really means, but as our linguist Geoff Nunberg points out,
definitions aren't as cut and dried as people think.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: A couple of months ago, the editors of the Oxford English
Dictionary made some long-overdue revisions in the definitions for a bunch of
gender-related words. Before then, the dictionary definition of girlfriend,
in the meaning sweetheart, read "a man's favorite female companion," which
would have precluded lesbians from having girlfriends in the romantic sense.
And the old definition of love read "that feeling of attachment which is based
upon difference of sex and which is the normal basis of marriage." So both
words were given new definitions that would cover their use to refer to
same-sex relationships.

But this isn't a matter of rampant political correctness or of giving the
words new meanings. It isn't as if the English language has ever ruled out
talking about lesbians having girlfriends, much less kept Shakespeare from
describing a romantic attachment between two men as "love." It's just that
when the original definitions were written, those sorts of relationships were
officially invisible. Those re-definitions came to mind as I was listening to
the renewed debate about gay marriage. To a lot of people, that notion isn't
simply a threat to God's plan or the social order but an affront to English.
As one conservative columnist put it, "It's a desecration of language." Do a
Google search for Web pages containing "same-sex marriage" and the like
together with "oxymoron," and you turn up 125,000 hits, most of them posted by
people who would tell you that the phrase same-sex marriage is as semantically
anomalous as female rooster.

Now, it's true that most people with reservations about gay marriage aren't
primarily motivated by their concern for the proprieties of English usage.
But it's always useful to be able to frame your position on an issue as a
defense of the traditional definition of a word. It's a way of folding your
argument into the language itself so that it doesn't require analysis. What
could be more cut and dried than a dictionary entry?

In this particular case, though, dictionaries themselves aren't always helpful
in sorting things out. Lexicographers know that nobody's going to go to the
mattress to defend the traditional definitions of words like love and
girlfriend. But when it comes to marriage, they start looking nervously over
both their shoulders. People only look the word up to make a point, and when
they don't find what they want, they're liable to organize a letter-writing
campaign or punch in an angry blog entry.

Some dictionaries try to placate both sides with a Solomonic solution. Both
Merriam-Webster's and the Oxford American Dictionary have retained their old
definition of marriage as a union between people of the opposite sex and added
an additional sense of the word that applies specifically to same-sex unions
that resemble traditional marriages. It recalls the editorial practice The
Washington Times followed until recently, where it always put marriage in
quotes when referring to homosexuals.

But there's no way to split the baby here. The opponents of gay marriage
won't consent to any official use of the M word for gays, and its advocates
won't accept an asterisk on the word. What point would the movement have if
marriage couldn't have a single meaning that applies to everyone? That's how
the word is treated in the Encarta dictionary, which gives it a single
definition that makes no reference to gender as "a legally recognized
relationship between two people who intend to live together as sexual and
domestic partners." Like the OED's re-definitions of love and girlfriend,
that's not supposed to be a new meaning for the word but an effort to get at
what's really basic to the old one, once you strip away what Edmund Burke
called the ancient prejudices and prescriptions that traditions are always
entangled in.

Of course, people can argue that the definition of marriage as a heterosexual
union has sacramental roots that make the word very different from girlfriend
or love. That debate will continue for a long time, or at least until the
institution of gay marriage becomes so ordinary and unremarkable that people
no longer feel the need to distinguish it with the prefix "gay" in the first
place.

But whichever side you take in this, it isn't a debate over whether to
preserve the traditional meaning of marriage. One way or another, everybody's
committed to that. The disagreement's over what the essence of the tradition
is. Though, actually, the discussion would benefit if everybody could agree
to lose the word "traditional," which has probably worked as much mischief
over the last half century as any other word in American public life. It's a
word people use to muddle the past so that it doesn't have to explain or
justify itself. In fact, when people defend something as traditional, what
they have in mind almost always turns out to be a purely modern concoction,
like the pastiche of Chippendale, French Provincial, Queen Anne and Colonial
that goes by the name of "traditional" on an Ethan Allen bedroom set.

"Traditional marriage" brings to mind the same sort of thing, a hodgepodge of
customs, laws, and restrictions, secular and religious, jumbling places and
periods willy-nilly. In either case, you can't tell what's the frame and
what's the filigree.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley. He's the author of the book
"Talking Right."
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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