Bob Morris is lucky in love, a fact he doesn’t initially appreciate. Surrounded by people who care about him, Bob still feels lonely and adrift. He wishes he could find the right guy, the perfect guy, and settle down. (Bob’s in his mid-40s and the gay online dating scene “is nothing but a sport of procure, dodge, and discard.”) Bob also wishes his writing career were going better. And he’d be so relieved if his 80-year-old dad, Joe, would spruce up his wardrobe (Beige vinyl loafers! Acetate ties!), because, as Bob readily admits:
When you’re as insecure as I am, you tend to believe that your father is a reflection of yourself.
Assisted Loving is Bob Morris’s amusing remembrance of his father’s days as a new widower, as Joe strives to adjust to single life by desperately seeking Edie, Kitty, Florence and every other potential date above the age of 65. The book is also Bob Morris’s memoir of his own personal maturing. Like Dorothy’s adventure through the Land of Oz, Bob’s is a journey through his own interior landscape, toward confidence and self-acceptance. Warm, involved friends and loving, open-minded family members accompany Bob, but, ultimately, it is he who must click his own heels together.
The story opens at Mount Ararat Cemetery on Long Island, N.Y., where Bob’s mother Ethel was buried a month before. Bob’s head is full of critiques, mostly of Joe, whose care of Ethel, in Bob’s judgment, fell short in countless small ways. And now the cemetery itself is lacking in Bob’s eyes, and he notices himself noticing its numerous imperfections.
The location of this cemetery isn’t genius. It’s all wrong, in, fact, sandwiched between two noisy roads. And the headstones are too much alike – new slabs of polished marble that aren’t aged enough to have historical charm. I’m thinking as I look around that I don’t care for this place at all. And I also don’t like myself for thinking such a thing. But lately, this kind of snobbery has started taking up the parking space in my head where nicer thoughts should be.
As a 20-something with a romantic imagination and a freshly-earned psychology degree, I tried my hand for almost 10 years as a professional matchmaker and dating service owner. It was emotionally wrenching, frustrating work, and the dating scenes Bob Morris describes in Assisted Loving capture precisely the defensive, self-defeating pickiness that so many of my clients brought to the process. Bob churns through countless first dates, sometimes several in one evening, he and his matches evaluating and dismissing one another within a few moments of superficial inspection. On a given night, Bob sizes up Date No. 3 this way:
He looks promising there at the sushi bar. Love the rust-colored hair. I walk up to him with real hope in my heart. But wait a minute. I’m not sure but I think I see love handles beneath that sweater. Just because I have them doesn’t mean anyone else can. No chemistry, no interest.
So of course, when Joe asks for Bob’s guidance in finding a new woman to love, Bob applies his same hyperselective shopping list approach to his father’s quest. Bob daydreams of Joe pairing up with someone classy and stylish, a woman with the right clothes and zip code, whereas Joe cares more about an easy-going personality and good figure. Son and father fume and bicker and date and date and date and date, and the process forces Bob to think about his father’s perspective on life, as well as his own:
Is there something to be said for being so content? He is essentially a happy man. Or is it just that he can’t be bothered to aspire to anything more than this? My whole life is about trying to make a mark on the world in ways he never could. And my past few years have been consumed with failed pitches and proposals. I want things that are so far out of reach and beyond his imagination that I live in a perpetual state of aspiration. And what does Dad want? A toasted bagel, a good duplicate bridge game.
Joe Morris is a steadfastly loving and accepting father, embracing Bob’s homosexuality without reservation:
When I was nineteen and going off to wash dishes on Fire Island one summer, he’s the one who came up to my room and came out of the closet for me – and told me it was fine with him, as long as I was careful.
Joe is boastfully proud of every article Bob’s ever written, and Thrilled! every time Bob calls or visits. Bob recalls that for both his parents:
There were so many little things I did that made them happy. They always made it so easy. So how did I grow up to be such a judgmental snob?
Assisted Living ends happily, with Joe meeting Doreen, a warm-hearted widow with a fun-loving way about her and an undisclosed ailment that necessitates her wearing a wig. Bob is predictably unsettled over this imperfection. That’s your problem, not mine, is Joe’s response.
And Bob also finally meets the love of his life, Ira.
He’s kind of affected, if not a little flamboyant. And, come on – Ira Silverberg. Can I date such a Jewish-sounding name? His eyes are squinty, and if they’re pools, only lap pools. They’re also brown when I prefer blue. But they are full of light and life.
Ultimately, what Joe teaches Bob is that enjoying life is possible, if one makes the choice to do so:
Love itself is a choice. It’s a decision to see how wonderful someone is, says Joe. Flaws and all. That’s what it takes to find a match. Love is a decision, Bobby.
Assisted Loving is sweet and honest, funny and wise. I wish it had been around during my matchmaking days; I would have handed every new client a copy.
Leigh Pretnar Cousins is an educational consultant and private tutor. She writes a blog for PsychCentral called Always Learning.
Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad
By Bob Morris
Harper: May 2008
Hardcover, 304 pages