1. A Tale of Two Commitments
“Please, Cliff,” she had cried over the phone. “I need the abortion! I can’t have a child now. If the father doesn’t approve, I can’t get it done here.”
“But I’m not the father!”
We were meeting for the first time. He extended his hand to shake mine. I looked him in the eye, measuring just how much I despised him. He shifted uncomfortably, looking away, looking downward.
At which point I simply turned and walked away, never looking back, without the slightest regret, not then, not now, at refusing to lift my hand to meet his.
We had been married, K and I, for seven years, tying the knot right out of college. Back then, I was a newly minted U.S. diplomat, so damned sure I actually would help achieve world peace that it didn’t matter—well, at least not too much—that I was also facing a two-year obligatory stint in the Army.
“Don’t think twice about it, Cliff,” people at the State Department had said, so sure they would persuade the Pentagon to give up on sending me to Vietnam and instead let me serve out my Army ROTC commission at the State Department itself. Predicted these ever-so-smug diplomatic colleagues of mine: “How could they not?”
How could they not? Very easily, that’s how. The Defense Department never lets go whenever it can beat the State Department in battles big and small—which is just about always, by the way.
So off to the Army I went in my fatigues, first as a greenhorn lieutenant supervising grim solders off-loading body bags, each with a very dead U.S. soldier inside, that had been unceremoniously shipped back in soulless, non-descript steel-grey freighters from Vietnam to the Oakland Marine Terminal across the Bay from San Francisco.
And in less than a year, it was my turn: on a chartered DC-9 to Vietnam for an obligatory year on the ground there, not that far north of the relative safety of Saigon but still dodging bullets, all while B-52s dropped their lethal calling cards … for what purpose, Dear God? For What Purpose?
By late 1968, having survived Vietnam, I could at last continue on with my State Department Foreign Service appointment. After a half-year in Washington learning French, off I went to pass the next two years in France as a wet-behind-the-ears “glorified gopher” at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
But none of my experiences, either in Vietnam or France, could have prepared me for that cold and drizzly morning back in Washington early in 1972, when I found myself on a dismal street corner hopelessly in the dark about a frenzied night of sex. Not my night. Hers. My wife K’s. With someone else.
She had literally walked out the door months before, casually explaining that she had met a “someone else” and just couldn’t stay away from him anymore. And now? I had to look her and Someone Else in the eye and save them both.
“Please, Cliff,” she had cried over the phone. “I need the abortion! I can’t have a child now. If you don’t sign and approve as the father, I can’t get it done here.”
“But I’m not the father!”
“I know!” she burst out. “But we’re not divorced, so you are the father whether you are or not. I can’t go in there now and say he’s the father. He won’t admit it anyway. And they won’t let me have the abortion unless the father agrees. And you’re the father because that’s what I wrote down. ”
“So I have to take the rap and bail you out—and him, too?” I’m screaming now.
Silence. Then, finally a whispered “Yes.”
I could easily have said no and thrown in a few more choice words for good measure. Instead, “Okay. When and where?”
So it came to pass on that tombstone-grey spring morning that K emerged from the doorway of a nondescript building in southwest Washington D.C., paper and pen in hand. She was frightened. I signed. And that’s when Someone Else came walking down the street towards us, a weak smile on his face, extending his hand in greeting.
What was the commitment that made me put that pen to paper? What was my commitment, and to whom had I made it, that to this day has me regretting that I didn’t tell him exactly where he could shove his hand?
Last summer’s song is making a comeback on the radio, and on the highway overpass, the only metaphysical vandal in America has written MEMORY LOVES TIME in big black spraypaint letters which makes us wonder if Time loves Memory back.
Last night I dreamed of X again She’s like a stain on my subconscious sheets. Years ago she penetrated me but though I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, I never got her out, but now I’m glad.
What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle. What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.
from “A Color of the Sky” by Tony Hoagland from What Narcissism Means To Me. © Graywolf Press, 2003, with permission from the author.
On Monday, January 10, 2000, just ten days after the new millennium began, CNN interrupted normal programming at 5:26 p.m. eastern time to broadcast breaking news of a surprise corporate merger:
“In a stunning development, America Online Inc. announced plans to acquire Time Warner Inc. for roughly $182 billion in stock and debt … creating a digital media powerhouse [valued at $350 billion] with the potential to reach every American in one form or another.
“With dominating positions in the music, publishing, news, entertainment, cable and Internet industries, the combined company, called AOL Time Warner, will boast unrivaled assets among other media and online companies.”[i]
On that very same day, in Keokuk, Iowa, there was another marriage, that of 24-year-old Mary Marides to her beau, 25-year-old Robert Stephson. Having known each other since childhood, the young sweethearts dated in high school and became a real hometown “item” after Robbie returned to Iowa from a five-year Army stint.
“Their marriage ceremony was beautiful,” said Pastor Jim Haverford of the Presbyterian Church, quoted in the Daily Gate City, Keokuk’s hometown newspaper. “If ever there is a couple whose marriage will last a lifetime, it’s theirs,” the beaming clergyman added.
Fast forward almost ten years.
On December 9, 2009, only two months shy of their merger’s ten-year anniversary, Time Warner and AOL split up. A few days later on the actual 10-year anniversary of this once “digital media powerhouse” merger, the New York Times observed grimly that:
“A decade ago, America Online merged with Time Warner in a deal valued at a stunning $350 billion. It was then, and is now, the largest merger in American business history.
“The trail of despair in subsequent years included countless job losses, the decimation of retirement accounts, investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department, and countless executive upheavals….
“To call the transaction the worst in history, as it is now taught in business schools, does not begin to tell the story of how some of the brightest minds in technology and media collaborated to produce a deal now regarded by many as a colossal mistake.”[ii]
That’s not all. On the very same day that Time Warner and AOL broke up, Keokuk’s Family Court finalized Robbie and Mary’s divorce.
On that fateful December day in 2009, each set of partners conceded not that their Year 2000 commitments to one another had ended but instead that those commitments had actually failed.
This difference—between ending a commitment and a commitment that fails—is as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon. It explains why we make commitments in the first place and why we then break most of them. It explains why, when we’re aware that future commitments are likely to fail or be broken, too, that we still go back and make them again and again. And, it explains why this is absolutely the right thing for us to do.
Is it possible that the AOL-Time Warner merger and the Stephsons marriage represented identical commitments? Is it possible that those commitments also failed for the same reasons?
Absolutely yes! It wouldn’t surprise me, though, if at first you disagreed. After all, AOL and Time Warner as companies, not people, were nothing at all like Robert and Mary. The two corporate giants owned quality brands, employed thousands of people, managed worldwide media empires out of massive headquarters buildings in Virginia and New York City, deployed legions of marketers, lawyers, accountants, web sites, and IT specialists to make things go smoothly, and, before their marriage, had already earned stellar reputations for delivering leading edge consumer and business media and technology services.
By contrast, there was nothing corporate about Mary and Robert. They were simply two people in love who committed to share their lives together, build a family, pay off the mortgage, and live out their lives in the town they loved until death did them part.
And yet, despite all these differences, AOL and Time Warner’s commitments to each other were exactly the same as Mary and Robert’s. Consider these facts:
— Fact #1: Both sets of partners entered into a formal relationship with one another where each party knew that the other was counting on them for the future success of the marriage.
— Fact #2: Each partner explicitly confirmed to the other that they were agreeing to common goals in their respective marriages.
— Fact #3: Each had agreed to work hard together to achieve those common goals.
— Fact #4: Each also agreed to do specific things, and avoid doing other things, to make sure that the marriage would work.
— Fact #5: Each expected that there would be offspring after the marriage was consummated (subsidiaries in the case of AOL-Time Warner, and children in the case of Robert and Mary).
— Fact #6: Each partner knew that the future welfare of these offspring would depend entirely on how each “parent” met shared responsibilities to assure their offspring stayed healthy, grew and prospered.
— Fact #7: Each knew that real money, and potentially lots of it, would be at stake, and that the idea was to earn more of it over time so that everyone would be better off.
— Fact #8, and the most important fact of all: each partner was led to believe by the other that their expectations of one another to do all of these things (and much, much more) were totally realistic, and that their partners could be counted on 100 percent to deliver the goods.
Despite all of these identical attributes, and despite all the micro-commitments each partner elected to make to the other every day after their wedding ceremonies, both unions came to an end not just because certain commitments to one another merely ended but also because those commitments actually failed—something else that Time Warner, AOL and the Stephsons all had in common.
How and why this happened will help to explain what commitments are, why we make them, why they fail, and—despite the awful pain we feel when they do fail—why we willingly do it all over again to get what we want.