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A vague preview of 
"Why Do I Love These People?":

This is another in my unique style of social documentary, using incredibly real stories from ordinary people surviving the challenges of their family.

finding Dad's letters to his mom, learning true feelings 
he never revealed to his children

A mother has to forsake the fulfilling career she's finally found, in order to care for her children. A husband tells his wife he won't give up, he won't leave her, he won't let her drive him away. A daughter finds her aging mother acting funny, and worries if this means her life has forever changed. A father, after 7 years of no contact and 18 years of neglect, tells his daughter he's coming over and wants a relationship. A new mother, watching her infant son sleep, realizes she needs to move home and be closer to her mother. A father learns his 16-year-old daughter is pregnant. A mother is told by the court she's losing custody of her daughter. A 55 year old widower falls in love - but it's too soon for his children.

a first of many visits 

This book will challenge you, if you're convinced you're too selfish to raise children. It will challenge you if you think having good friends is enough. Or if you think you just weren't given "the family gene." It will challenge you if you're trying to use your career to fill that hole. It will test you, if you're sure you can never forgive her for how she treated you, or can't forgive him for what he did. It will alter your definition of family - not the political definition, but the definition that resides in your soul, put there by experience, cemented by repetition. 

perhaps the only elm to survive Dutch Elm Disease in Michigan - 
a miracle and a metaphor for the boy who grew up on this farm

It will help you if you're looking for strength. It will help you if your family disapproves, or if you and your spouse have brought very different family styles into your marriage. It will help you if you're trying to regain a love for your parents that frustration wore away. It will help if you're simply baffled how to do it all - how to hold down a job and raise your children and still love your spouse, who is no longer an escape from these burdens, but rather a constant reminder of them. It will help if you're trying not to hurt someone you love ( just to let them really know how badly you were hurt by them). It will help if you never had a father, or a mother, or feel like you never really did. It will help if you're in a situation you never thought you'd be in. My god, aren't we all? 

sometimes pictures and a few memories are the only family you've got

I began with over seven hundred leads, which were collected in all sorts of ways - solicited from this web site, passed to me after speaking at schools and churches, referred from counselors and experts, gathered by scouts looking for me in key cities, coughed up by friends of friends, et cetera. From these, certain themes kept reappearing, in a sense educating me, guiding me to a vision of what I should be looking for. I soon found myself following ten couples who were trying to survive an affair, and ten families raising a child with special needs, and ten unusual adoption stories, and ten stories of women who moved home to "work it out" with their mothers. And ten homes trying to blend children from previous marriages ...  ten stepmother stories ... ten devastated by the death of a child ... ten women fleeing arranged/forced marriages ... fifteen reconciliations with distant parents ... thirty couples trying to blend his family style with hers ... ten families with rebellious teens in real trouble ... ten adults suddenly forced to take care of their aging parents ... ten same-sex families with children ... twenty people whose friends served as a surrogate family ... ten grudges that had divided a family and looked insurmountable ... every situation imaginable. Most families fell into multiple categories. I kept track of them by phone interviews and frequent correspondence. Sometimes I'd stop by if I was in their city. Most of these families were now in the US, Canada, or UK, but they had come here from literally all over the world, recently or within a few generations, bringing particular expectations and traditions that were inevitably threatened by contact with a geographically-spread-out and heterogeneous country. There once was a time that couples had similar backgrounds - the kind of family they created was some willful variation on the childhood they had. But today, almost every family is a hybrid of some sort, whether it's because the partners come from different countries or just different experiences (broken home vs. an uptight one, for example). The form these new families eventually take is fought over, argued for, and patched together Swiss Family Robinson-style, house by house. 

their village in China - 24 years ago, and today, upon their return 

Eventually, out of those groups of evolving dramas, one story would best represent them all and yet also preserve its singularity. These stories became my destinations, and I'd fly to record them in person. On average, for these stories, I might have spent eight hours on the phone with them and two days visiting, plus an embarrassing amount of correspondence before and after. Selecting these stories is fairly intuitive, with a lot of second-guessing. I get asked about it a lot: "How do you choose? What do you look for?" I have no pre-set definitions, but here's how I often answer:

I look for a particular relationship, two or sometimes three people I can focus on. A mother and her son. A daughter and her father. A wife and her husband. I look for a present haunted by the past, and trace how they are connected. I look for some good news from people who'd known hard times. I guess I was looking for resolutions, however they came, not just restatements of the problem. I look for stories that can be grounded - either in some totem of the past that works as a metaphor, or in particular scenes located in places and times that flow from one another ("I was walking through the mall, watching all these kids come out of the JC Penney, when I found myself looking for him in their faces, and I realized my life could never go forward until I located my son and knew he was all right. That night, I wrote a letter to his mom at her old address ...") I look for the universal, by which I mean I avoid stories that are so weird and amazing and awful that we would not see ourselves in them, we'd just be rubbernecking for voyeurism's sake. I suppose that's the key thing: I look for stories we can all relate to, but yet still grab you with drama.  

a home devastated by hurricane, foreshadowing the real turmoil soon to come

At first, I was afraid all my work would be secondhand reconstruction, - that my writing might suffer from not having been there when it was happening. But therapists and counselors advised me not to be discouraged - I at least had the advantage of going into people's homes, eating their food, feeling what it's like to be in a family's presence, meeting the relevant subjects face to face - something therapists don't get to do. I came to understand that most family stories are secondhand - that is their nature. You weren't there when your parents met, you've only heard your father's story told and retold. During our interviews, if more than one person was present, secrets were commonly aired, and hidden histories were revealed - not just to me, but to the rest of the family. In addition, a surprising number of the stories took unexpected turns over the year, and I was often there, or at least on the phone, as it unfolded. I came to internalize these stories; I chose these people because they spoke directly to my heart in an intangible way, and eventually I had a conviction about them that I was accustomed to with "real time" firsthand journalism. It's a satisfying moment when someone says, "You now know more about me than anyone else alive," or "I never knew that about my father until he told you in front of me."  

the note left on the front door by a mother, kicking her teen daughter out

I've learned that it's not all rooted in childhood - that in fact, we all have situations to master as part of a necessary maturation that continues well into adulthood. A good childhood doesn't excuse you from needing to learn these things. 

I've learned that you can feel orphaned for years, even if you're sixty when your parents die and you have lots of siblings alive. 

I learned that the ambition we have for family today is a new thing, historically (that it be based on romantic affection and nurturing rather than property), but that doesn't mean it's foolish to think we can have it different, since family has always been malleable, altered by conquests and occupations, technology and economic necessity. 

I've been reminded that families are the engine, the basic unit, fighting against the world's troubles. Families are what drive the great migration of populations, one sibling or parent at a time. Families have to overcome poverty, they have to transcend racism, they have to flee oppressive governments and war zones. In Belfast, a Protestant marries a Catholic. In Cincinnati, a black mother enrolls her children in white schools. An Afghan family flees the Soviet invasion. A Chinese family escapes communism.  

a father creates a memorial to his son to give a place to his heartache

Despite the variety of family challenges, certain core questions keep reappearing despite the situation:

What do you do when you've changed, and they haven't? When you no longer have similarity of interest to unite you? When you think your brother's prejudiced, or your parents are old fashioned, or you are growing away from your spouse? You discovered a passion, or fell in love with a person they'd reject, or have become, inside, a person you know they'd run from? 

How tough should my love be?  - (How much support should I give my child, versus teaching them how the world works by making them fend some for themselves? Should I rescue my brother, again!, or leave him there and hope hardship wisens him up? Should I go visit my father, or should I insist he apologize first?)

Why do I do things I know I shouldn't? - (Why do I yell at my son? Why do seemingly "good" men bore me, and unstable ones interest me? Why do I keep holding secrets from my wife?) 

How do I act out of desire, not out of obligation?

When should I put my needs first, versus put my family's needs first? 

Should I fight or let go? - (Will fighting with my ex ruin my daughter's life? Should I just accept that my parents will always be that way? Should I fight to save a marriage in which the goodwill is gone?)  

How much power should I grant my past? - (Should I accept that it's made me who I am, or is that a cop out? How do I be a good mother when nobody mothered me? Do I owe my parents my life, since they sacrificed so much to get me here?)  

a cohousing community in SW Virginia, where 
people actually know their neighbors

For the longest time, the door was closed. Maintaining my relationships with my family felt only like an obligation, a joyless burden. I was only half-there. My career, my friends, and my ideas sustained me and occupied my real interest. And then one day ... I found myself divorced ... my mother told me she didn't know me ... I was pushing my brother away because I felt guilty for not having been there during his hardest times ... I was scared of raising children ... and I realized all of the above were connected. In that moment, the door finally opened, and I walked back into my real life, and I got it. Now those relationships matter more to me than anything else. I face a choice of how my children will think about family, and who they count as family. Great memories comes back to me, rich with love, and I realize I can do this, I will do this. This matters. This might be the most important thing I ever do.

In some places, being "Middle Class" is not as reassuring as it once was

Here's a quick list of the places I've been in the last year to research the book: Concord New Hampshire, Jersey City NJ, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Hounslow (London), Harrow (London), Belfast (N. Ireland), Paris, Zihuateneo Mexico, central Kansas, Blue Springs Missouri, San Diego, Schenectady New York, Quad Cities Iowa, Scottsdale and Mesa Arizona, Boca Raton, Austin, Denver, St. Petersburg and Orlando Florida, Winston Salem North Carolina, Blacksburg Virginia, Camden Maine, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, Detroit, Minneapolis, Long Island and Seattle. Amazingly, I was always home on weekends, and I never missed a Saturday soccer game.

Sept 1962 - A Japanese farmer leaves his wife and 
children at home to work the fields in California.

This book's not done. Not even done being researched. It might seem like out of seven hundred leads, I would have everything I need. But that's not quite true. I would love to talk to more people about their relationship with a loved one. My mind is always open. I always want to hear a story. What pushed you apart? What brought you back together? What did you learn along the way?


my son holding his sister, hours after her birth