'Retired' hardly describes U prof who's charting his next chapter

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2011 - 7:52 PM

Childhood art drawn by Paul Rosenblatt's 25-year-old daughter, Emily, still hangs on the door of his largely unadorned office. "I didn't want to take it down," he said.

Sadly, he'll soon have to.

Rosenblatt, 72, will be honored Friday at a retirement party celebrating his more than 50 years of teaching, the last 42 of them in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science.

Despite authoring academic tomes such as "Metaphors of Family Systems Theory," and the equally heady "Shared Obliviousness in Family Systems," despite his awards for research and teaching, Rosenblatt never lost sight of how ordinary folks live, what we care about in our boots-on-the-ground lives.

How do we negotiate neighborhood disputes? How do we survive the loss of a child? How do we define intimacy and negotiate in bed around that intoxicating S word, sleep?

Twenty-six years into his second marriage and the father of three grown children, Rosenblatt appreciates nuance and shies away from absolutes when it comes to the quirky, complex territory known as human relationships. He'd rather ask questions than answer them.

I asked him about Arnold and Maria, anyway.

"I am clueless about what actually went on with them," he said earlier this week of news that the Schwarzenegger-Shrivers were splitting up after 25 years. "But, for whatever it's worth, I think being married is hard enough without a couple having to be on stage almost all the time. They both have to put on a nice front in public. They often are separated physically far more than the typical couple. When they do get together, they are in some ways starting over again, and a relationship of restarts isn't necessarily very good for one or both of them.''

Raised in Chicago by blue-collar parents, Rosenblatt got his first taste of conflict early -- a knife fight in the first grade. "Two little boys in an alley," he said. He decided to never carry a knife again, to defend himself "by being smart."

After working in a printing factory and as a stock boy, Rosenblatt earned his bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Chicago, and his doctorate in psychology from Northwestern University. For 50 years, he's studied people riding social, political and economic waves, from farm families to multi-racial couples to feminists fighting for equality.

Today's challenges continue to intrigue him, with the growing number of multi-generational households, workweeks bleeding into weekends, and the declines in marriage and in family size. "My family courses now are almost nothing like what I taught 30 years ago," he said. "The sense of reality is different."

Rosenblatt's legacy, though, likely will be his work around sleep. What is the effect on couples, he wondered, from spooning, snoring and sprawling? "It's often not easy sleeping together," he once told me, "but people keep doing it."

Rosenblatt interviewed 42 couples and four individuals, and turned his findings into a 2006 book titled, "Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing." He was inundated with more than 170 media requests, including two that stand out.

"It was really hard for them to understand me," Rosenblatt said of Cosmopolitan and Redbook, grinning behind his wire-rimmed glasses. "They wanted, 'How to Make Your Man Happy in Bed.'"

Two years ago, Rosenblatt shadowed Emily, who was working as a community organizer in Harlem. "I watched what she did, the energy of connecting with a community. I thought, 'I could do that.'"

So he will. He isn't sure what kind of activism he'll chase, but he welcomes the freedom that retirement provides. "I'm really concerned about this country, this planet," he said. "I've got to try to do something about that."

He'll still teach a few courses, off the payroll, and mentor students and faculty -- welcome news to many.

"I took every class he offered," said lecturer Lynn Von Korff, who came to the U after 20 years of nonprofit work. "He's intellectually engaging, an outstanding writer and thinker. He's such a driving force in the department, although he wouldn't like the words 'driving force.'

"His presence is exciting, palpable."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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