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The Pleasure of Being Foolish


kamurj

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Excerpted from
Seven Sins for a Life Worth Living
By Roger Housden

Falling in love is surely the most foolish and irresistible of all the pleasures available to any human being. Most of us fall for it at one time or another. My own story went this way: a fifty-three-year-old man sells his house in England, leaves a good but fading relationship of some thirteen years, says good-bye to his twenty-three-year-old son from an earlier marriage, and boards a plane for the United States and a new life. He has no idea what he is flying toward. All he knows is that he has a one-year visa and a book to write.

After two weeks in the Bay Area, where he has friends and an extended house-sit, he heads to Michigan for a month's retreat offered him by a foundation as a place to begin writing. Just before he leaves, the foundation calls to say they have double-booked their room for the first ten days of his stay, so they have arranged for him to stay for that time at another retreat center a short walk away over the hill.

When he arrives at this retreat center, which is a Mennonite one in a converted barn, he goes up to his room and immediately sits down to proclaim in his diary that this is the start of a whole new life. He can do anything, go anywhere, his life is an open book. The next clay he goes down to lunch, which is held in silence, to discover there is only one other guest. He takes his plate and sits down in the place laid for him opposite her.

A woman. A woman sitting there with huge open eyes and a radiant smile. He smiles back, wanly, in astonishment. He doesn't know where to put himself. All he knows is that it's over. It's all over. The very last thing he would ever have put in his diary, a gigantic love affair, has surged up out of nowhere and brushed every other option out of his mind.

He has just left a long relationship. He has barely spent more than a few months of his adult life without the intimate company of a woman; this would be his best opportunity ever to allow himself to enjoy his own company for an extended period, perhaps for the rest of his life. And what does he do? He falls in love within two weeks of leaving home. And with a woman nearly eighteen years his junior. It's all so predictable, you might say. And you would be right.

This alone would be enough to warrant an extended sigh. But that isn't the half of it. This woman, he discovers the very first day, is married with three children, two of them barely out of the toddler stage. Of course, to begin with he thinks that will let him off the hook. He gives a sigh of relief and over the first few days makes it clear that their emerging friendship must remain on a firmly platonic basis. But it doesn't happen that way.

If you are in love you cannot help but throw caution to the winds. You cannot help but make decisions (you may seem to be choosing at the time, but more likely you are helpless to do anything else) that no sane person looking after their back would ever make, even on a bad day. And yet it is precisely in this abandonment that the profound pleasure of love, the joy of it, is to be found. Love is freedom from the known; it is freedom now, along with the intuition that ultimately you have nothing to lose anyway-only a string of gray days, a recurring sense of loneliness, and a life that, however fulfilling, probably doesn't quite add up.

The train of events set in motion by my marrying Maria has caused me to make a fool of myself in more ways than one. On our first family vacation from the United States to England, an old friend of mine invited us to join him on his boat on the River Dart, in Devon. My relationship with Maria's children was quite new, and I was naturally regarded with suspicion and reserve. To get to the boat, we had to row ourselves out for a hundred yards in a little dinghy. My friend took out the children and Maria, and his wife returned to the shore with the dinghy, leaving me to row out to the boat on my own while she went back to the house.

I know nothing about rowing and water currents, but it seemed a simple enough thing to do. The river was flowing gently, and my friend's wife had just arrived like an arrow at the shore. I headed toward the boat, but almost immediately began to drift downstream. I furiously paddled on the other side and somewhat righted my course but a little too much, so that the dinghy started to head upstream, parallel to the boat instead of heading toward it. I scrambled to adjust my course again, but despite my best efforts and barely thirty yards from my intended destination, the dinghy began slowly to rotate in circles.

I became aware that my wife and her three children were all looking on from the boat. I glanced up in embarrassment and strove even harder to bring the thing under control. My efforts only seemed to make matters worse. I sat there helplessly for a moment watching myself turn in circles.

I looked up at Maria and suddenly found myself laughing, laughing out loud. I held up the oars in a gesture of hopeless surrender to my predicament. The two girls started giggling, and a broad grin broke out on the older boy's face. In seconds everyone was doubled up in laughter.

In that instant my cover was blown. My need to appear capable, responsible, and manly was blown clean out of the water. The truth was revealed-that, faced with this simple task, I was nothing less than helpless and hopeless.

Yet in that moment I was able to meet those children in a way I had not done before. And my wife, too. Even with her-perhaps especially with her-I had been all too ready to confirm any notions she might have had about my wisdom concerning the ways of the world. I was the one with the life experience, the one who had done this and that, who had read and written the books and generally tramped about the world-a tale from which she has long since, of course, been disabused.

In truth, I couldn't even row a little boat in a straight line for a hundred yards. It was pitiful, really. But it was hilarious, too. And above all it left me undisguised, without a social mask, reduced to my bare essentials, which included my ineptness when faced with a simple task.

That's why it broke the ice with the children: they could see me now', in that moment, as a buffoon who was able to join in on the joke about himself, rather than as a threat to their relationship with their mother. It was a tiny, apparently insignificant moment, but it was the one that first began to cause a shift in our relationship. I was human, they realized, and, despite myself, funny with it, too.

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