LONDON, ONTARIO – Incredulity laced with pity would best describe my reaction to the news earlier this month that Bill and Melinda Gates – respectively aged 65 and 56 – have decided to divorce. You've come this far together, you poor lugs. Why would you pack it in now? What with Bill being the second or third wealthiest human being on the planet, they knew that it wouldn’t be possible to quietly terminate this marriage and so the no-longer-affiliated entities - now identifying themselves as "Melinda Gates and Bill Gates" - issued a bland joint announcement to the world press which they hoped might keep the baying jackals of gossip and innuendo at bay:
“After a great deal of thought and a lot of work on our relationship, we have made the decision to end our relationship. Over the last 27 years, we have raised three incredible children and built a foundation that works all over the world to enable people to lead healthy, productive lives. We continue to share a belief in that mission and will continue our work together at the foundation, but we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives. We ask for space and privacy for our family as we begin to navigate this new life.”
That May 2nd press release might have bought them a few hours’ peace but the very next day salacious rumours about infidelities and Bill’s past associations with world-famous slime-ball Jeffrey Epstein (who, everybody knows, didn’t hang himself) were already starting to circulate. And now, a full two weeks since the soon-to-be-exes dropped their bomb, each hour's news cycle produces fresh details of a nerdish thug who didn't recognize boundaries in the boardroom or the bedroom. And financial columnists, astonished that the Gates never signed any sort of pre-nup, are spinning out possible scenarios about post-marriage settlements and the divvying up of an empire.
Having no particular insights into Bill’s allegedly bent past and knowing even less about how the cookie of the Gates' high finances might crumble, I will confine my own observations to a few insights that occurred to me while reading their announcement. How ironic is it that one of the key players in the development of a world-warping technology that has all but banished the possibility of privacy from our lives, should now be asking us for “space and privacy”. What? Haven’t you developed some sort of app for that, Bill?
While I do salute the fact that this preposterously wealthy couple has given away so much of their fortune to what they deem worthwhile philanthropic causes (unlike a certain Jeff Bezos who this month sank a cool half billion on a gargantuan yacht) I do regret that these parents of “three incredible children” have done so much to promote abortion and sterilization in poorer countries around the globe. And there is, of course, something quite hubristically comical about a pair of crusaders with a mission to save the whole world who cannot muster sufficient regard for one another to keep their own household intact and humming along.
“What’s for dinner, honey?”
“Nothing. Can’t you see I’m solving global warming up here? Go away and open up a tin of soup, why don’t you?”
But the line in their press release that really set my antennae twitching was this one: “We no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.” Bill is now legally defined as a senior citizen so one automatically suspects he’s the one who must be dragging his feet about setting out on some new growth-filled adventure like . . . oh, I don’t know . . . sky-diving? . . . accordion lessons? . . . pedalling through the Rockies on unicycles? Perhaps he just wants to stay home on Friday nights with a warm cup of Ovaltine and watch reruns of The Golden Girls? Or maybe it’s the nine years-younger Melinda who’s balking at the dowdy and totally unglamorous prospect of joining a retired couples euchre league? “Don’t be fencing me in like that, Billy boy. I didn’t marry you for a long time; I married you for a good time.”
One wonders what kind of wondrously expansive growth these wrinkly kids anticipate in the final third of their lives which couldn’t be ever so much more agreeably accomplished in the company of their avowed spouse and co-parent of their children. Do neither one of them recognize that the season they now confront is a time of consolidation and divestment and - not to point too fine a point on it - preparing to meet their maker? Is either one of these well-seasoned billionaires so deluded that they're looking to haul their sorry ass back out onto the degrading circuit of the dating scene? Oh yes, with fortunes like theirs to prop up any shortages of personality or charisma, they'd find some willing "takers" all right.
Or perhaps they’re so disenchanted and exhausted with one another that they really just want to be alone. And with each one now ensconced in a beautifully appointed mansion of their own – just like Scrooge McDuck! – they'll be able to cap off each beautifully solitary day with a few laps in an indoor pool filled with cash before climbing into their very own king or queen-sized bed. It's a dark thing to ponder how, Citizen Kane-like, fabulous plenitude can make such desolation possible. When a poorer couple hits a rough patch, they're more likely to try and devise some new formulation that allows them to continue in tandem. Whereas wealthier lovers when they're on the outs have the resources and liberty to discard their vows and walk away from the wreckage; perhaps even believing for a few months or years that they've improved their lives by indulging their shallowest and greediest impulses.
MYSTIFIED BY THIS dismal spectacle of an older couple who couldn’t find a way to realign their connection to the spouse with whom they’d been through so much, I laughed at the contrast early this week when I recalled the lengths I went to as a pre-teen boy to make a single impression on a girl with whom I never even got to first base. I will call this first girl I loved “Cathy” so as to spare her family any grief or embarrassment. Just a few weeks younger than me, I didn’t learn until several years after the fact that she killed herself in 1999 when she would have been started down the far side of her forties.
Dark-haired with beautiful doe eyes and usually laughing, Cathy seemed to contain some giddy secret that I longed to crack. When we were all of eleven and twelve (with trace elements seeping into the next couple years) Cathy was the unwitting subject upon whom I projected my first, uninformed and totally unrequited crush. Neighbours in what was then one of London's swishier suburbs, we were part of a precocious pack of sub-teens who played at romantic games that their hormones frankly weren't up to yet.
Perhaps I shouldn't speak for the others. Maybe some of them were plumbing Heathcliffian depths of passion and angst during those awkward "chicken or dare" make-out sessions but I rather doubt it. Bold and risqué as we fancied ourselves to be, in retrospect I can't help picturing us as nothing more torrid than a box full of half-blind puppies, stepping on each other's ears and nuzzling against one another as we groped for the warmest corner next to the stove.
While I occasionally played up a moody image of myself as the spurned lover, I think I was ultimately more relieved than dashed by my lack of "progress" with Cathy. An accidental friendship sporadically flourished between us in those idle moments when I forgot to moon and sigh, and that's what I treasure most now. My fondest memory of her hails from one empty summer afternoon when no one else seemed to be around and we sat on a curb for a couple hours banging off rolls of caps with a rock and talking about everything under the sun.
In retrospect I can see that in a few key instances, Cathy was actually instrumental in helping to lift my gaze beyond the clammy confines of our adolescent little world. She signed up for Saturday morning art lessons at the library one winter, so I deviously did the same; hoping that once she saw me in a paint-smeared smock, she'd realize just what a smouldering hunk I really was. That didn’t quite pan out. But it was wanting to be with her which drew me out of that arid suburb once a week and introduced me to the rich and historic tangle of inner city streets.
Fixated at the time on Dave Clark and Ringo Starr, I just painted drum sets week after week – a back view, a front view, a close-up of the hardware on a snare, a disastrous attempt to capture the visual shimmer of a recently crashed cymbal. There was a far richer and wider range of subjects being explored on Cathy's easel; evincing a curiosity about different forms and techniques that I couldn't summon. Her example suggested that the point with any art (and for me, it sure wasn't going to be painting) wasn't to get one trick down and endlessly reiterate it. By employing your skills as variously as possible, art became the means by which all experiences and impressions could be processed and transformed.
We moved out of that suburb in the autumn of my twelfth year which pushed me out of her immediate orbit and greatly decreased our interactions. I remember meeting her at a Christmas party when we were fourteen (Sunshine Superman spinning away on the turntable) and being a little alarmed by a heavy smell of white wine on her breath. She was clearly moving in a considerably faster circle than me. She switched over to Beal in grade ten to study art and a friend has told me he distinctly remembers me being difficult and caustic with Cathy's date at another party we all attended that fall. That was likely our very last encounter and I only hope that Cathy managed to forget it as completely as I did.
And from there I only have bare bones to go by – brutal bare bones regarding two failed marriages, schizophrenia, and her final bleak year all alone and back in London in a miserable downtown rooming house. Of all the possible futures I could have imagined and would have wished for the girl who never meant to play such a key role in my life, I sure didn't see that one coming.
If you would like to contribute to the ongoing operations of Hermaneutics, there are now a few options available.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
ALL LIFE IS A GIFT :
THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION :