Bill's referring to Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court and the newest New York Times' op-ed columnist's brilliantly original regurgitation of an age-old conservative and patriarchal argument against allowing women to be full-fledged grown-ups.
Having a job makes women unhappy.
I'd agree, if Douthat means that it's no fun working as a cashier at Wal-mart or cleaning toilets at the local convenience mart. But he doesn't. Like many elitists, of the right and the left, in whose thinking about gender and work working class women often seem not to figure, Douthat means any sort of job, but is thinking really about the kinds of jobs held by smart, ambitious, competent women of his own class and educational background, because those are the women who from the point of view of men like Douthat need putting back in their proper place lest they make men like Douthat feel less smart and competent themselves.
The world needs its toilets cleaned. It does not need doctors, lawyers, scientists, and journalists who may be smarter than Ross Douthat, make more money, and show no deference or desire to give over their lives to bearing and raising his children.
Douthat forgot to mention it, but having a career makes a woman act like a man, too. So those of you ladies who want to be feminine and therefore attractive to men like Douthat need to march right out of that cubicle and back into the kitchen before you start sprouting mustaches and following UFC.
Ok, let's forget that these polls and surveys are usually of questionable provenance and doubtful methodology. Let's just consider a fact about women that I think Douthat would agree is true.
Women are under a lot of pressure to be happy.
I don't mean that the feel compelled to attain some higher level of bliss on their way to self-enlightenment and fulfillment.
I mean that generally, at work, at home, around friends and family, just walking down the street or sitting on a park bench alone with their thoughts, they are expected to be happy in the same way they are expected to be busy. It's in their job description.
Or to put it another way. A man in a grumpy mood is a man in a grumpy mood. A woman in a grumpy mood is being a bitch.
Most of us know to steer clear of the man in the grumpy mood. With the bitch, not so much. Plenty of her friends, coworkers, and family, female as well as male, will make it a point to tell her to snap out of it.
Women are the peacemakers and the comfort-bearers. They are the happy homemakers---it usually falls to them to make the home a happy place to be. This is the traditional wife and mother's first duty.
Which means, of course, that for a woman, admitting to being unhappy is tantamount to admitting to being a failure.
It's worse for the traditional types Douthat wishes all women within his dating range would emulate.
In short, when asked to participate in these surveys and polls, these women have a strong incentive to lie, if only to fool or flatter themselves or, more likely, keep up their morale.
"Liberated" women of the type who apparently shatter Douthat's fragile sense of male superiority and whose senses of self-worth and success are not as strongly defined by how good a job they do at making other people happy don't have the same incentive, and they can flat out say what is in fact true, life usually sucks and happiness is fleeting if not an illusion altogether so there's not much gain in making it the point of one's existence or the measure of one's...um...happiness.
Boy, there's a post in that one---happiness is not itself a necessary ingredient of happiness.
Of course, one of the first complaints men had against women becoming liberated was that they would feel liberated to speak their minds because they were afraid it would turn out as it has turned out that a lot of what was on women's minds was not flattering or comforting to men.
Now, let's add this. Happiness---being happy---is an American virtue.
We're a nation of bucker-uppers. This is one of the great things we do for each other. We cheer each other up. We're constantly telling each other and ourselves to buck up, cheer up, suck it up, live it up, look for the silver lining, put a shine on our shoes and a melody in our hearts, gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, start all over again, and shut up, stop your whining, nobody wants to hear it, and I like this about us.
It can be overdone, and it's nice to take a vacation from it now and then, either by sinking into your own private slough of despond or by finding a bar full of kindred dour spirits and share complaints or by visiting New York City or by just kicking a mime.
But on the whole I'd rather be stuck on a stopped elevator or on a broken down train or in a long line at the supermarket with people who think it's their job to find the situation at least mildly amusing. And I think it is everybody's job in a family to try to make things pleasant for everybody else. I don't mean by burying feelings, by living in denial, by enabling, or by living a lie. I mean by doing whatever little things we can do and saying what little things we can think of to make home, and home is where the heart is, so that can include work and school, bearable.
And it's important to remember that there are ways of doing that besides prancing around the house singing and telling jokes---which, in fact, can be a good way to make the place a living hell---or even without smiling all the damn time.
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
There's an ambiguity in the poem that's troublesome when you start to think about the many images in it that allude to pain and bruising and that line about "fearing the chronic angers of that house" tells you that the boy's indifference to his father's favors isn't just the usual case of a child taking his parents for granted. But I love the last line, "love's austere and lonely offices," and it still makes the point---there's a lot of pain and suffering, sacrifice and hard work that goes into being happy. And to get back to Douthat's rather childish notion that mothers and housewives are the happier women, who knows better how lonely and austere love's offices can be? When these women respond to nosy poll takers, it's very likely that they are taking rather small comfort in being happy and what they are doing instead is keeping themselves going.
Back when I was in grad school I taught a correspondence course in creative writing. Really. It was offered by the university. I was a pioneer in distance learning although it was all done through the mail and not over the internet, that's how old I am. My students included all sorts and conditions, but I'd bet that the great majority of them were stay at home wives and mothers---this being Iowa, staying at home for a lot of them meant working at home on the farm. I didn't get know my students well, naturally, and in fact knew very little about them, just what they chose to reveal about themselves in their stories and poems. But since their work was usually autobiographical the main thing I learned was that people who enroll in creative writing courses by mail have a lot more sadness in their lives than the twenty-something wiseguy presuming to be their teacher would have suspected or was prepared to deal with before taking on the job of grading the expressions of that sadness.
I remember one poem in particular. It was by a woman living on the far western side of the state, which I imagined to be all bleak and desolate prairieland. Her poem was a litany of personal and familial disaster. Cancer, job loss, divorce, estrangements between parents and children and brothers and sisters, financial ruin, fatigue, stress, loneliness, and not one but two tornados. I was devastated while reading the poem but I was utterly dumbfounded by its last verse which was very close to being, "But God's in His heaven and all's right with the world."
Being young and arrogant and naturally self-centered, not to mention fashionably cynical and world-weary, I was impressed, or convinced myself I was impressed, by the poet's naivete. And I went around for weeks afterwards telling everybody who would listen about it and spouting theories about what the poem proved about Iowans or Midwesterners or Christians in general---I used to blog before there were blogs by shooting my mouth off a lot---and otherwise proving my own spiritual and intellectual superiority.
Just in case you're worried that about how big an asshole I was capable of being, I kept these theories from the poet herself and limited my jerkiness to suggesting, tactfully, that her poem would be better if she left the last verse out. Which from a purely critical point of view was actually true. It wasn't a bad poem at all. But what did I know about love's austere and lonely offices? That last verse was her point in writing the poem, and she wrote back to tell me that, tactfully, speaking as a grown-up to an arrested adolescent.
And I'll tell you, I'll bet if you'd asked that woman if she was happy, she'd have said yes.
Because what else did she have left to be?
Letter to Dear Abby this morning:
DEAR ABBY: I am part of a group of people who read our local newspaper online and comment on the news of the day in the public forums provided. It's great fun and offers an excellent place to interact with others.
Some of us have become close, exchanging e-mails and chat messages. One of the women has suggested we all get together at a local watering hole and meet each other, and the gang has agreed.
I would love to join in, but the problem is that the persona I built online is that of a hunky, handsome young man -- including a pilfered photo I posted as "me" on my profile. Needless to say, he is NOT me. I am a 54-year-old, chubby, graying man who wears glasses.
I thought this kind of thing went out with AOL chat rooms.
This guy, who signs himself Abs of Sponge, is old enough to know better. How many TV sitcoms have had stories about a character who'd lied to a pen-pal about what he or she looked like and did for a living and now had to fess up. Radar sent one of his pen-pals a picture of Hawkeye and told her he was an officer and a doctor.
I sympathize with him though. Although I've never hidden the fact that I am a stooped and wizened old man, in the early days of blogging I became convinced that the only reason I was enjoying any popularity at all is that people had developed all kinds of wild fantasies about who and what I was based on my ridiculously macho name. It was James Wolcott's fault. "Manly name, manly blog," he wrote one of the first times he linked to me. Inquiring emails from curious readers and gossip passed along by internet pals confirmed my fears. I became terrified of meeting any of my readers or blogging buddies in person. "If they find out what I really am, they'll drop me from their blog rolls and delete me from their bookmarks in a heartbeat!" I told the blonde.
Who scoffed, of course. "Nobody's staying up late, dreaming of what Lance Mannion looks like," she assured me.
That's why men get married. For the ego boost.
But eventually I started attending some events where I was bound to bump into other bloggers and you know what?
It turned out the blonde was right. Nobody had spent a whole lot of time thinking about me. No women looked particularly disappointed (or thrilled). No truly manly man blogger sniggered, except Neddie Jingo, who has a right to feel mas macho---he owns both a motorcycle and a chainsaw. I just wasn't the legend in anybody's mind I'd fooled myself into thinking I was.
So, you might think my advice to Abs of Sponge would be, Go and don't worry about it. No one will care. They probably won't even notice you're not what you think they think you are.
Abs of Sponge has been flirting with some of the women he's met online and the flirtation is clearly based on their thinking he is "a hunky, handsome young man."
By the way, I'm just pretending to believe this guy exists at all. I've heard that advice columnists have a habit of mashing together letters and conflating three or four or ten advice-seekers into one "person," as a way of addressing a common problem with a single column. If Abs of Sponge writes to his online friends in the same style as he writes to Abby, they're not fooled.
Abs tries to make it sound as though these women have all taken the initiative and flirted with him without his encouragement, as if he's been a perfect gentleman, except for, you know, the lying, but of course that's a crock.
I'm sure Abby knows it too, and I think her advice to him is malicious.
She's sending him out to meet these women! She wants him humiliated.
She assures him he won't be, that it will probably turn out he isn't the only fraud in the group and everyone will have a good laugh.
Abs! Don't listen! Stay home! Sign up for AOL and find a nice safe chat room.
By the way. I'm not 54. I'm not chubby. But I'm graying and I wear glasses. Wanna chat?
Unless the aliens landed before noon Tuesday and he donned his old flight suit, jumped into the cockpit of an F-14 conveniently parked on the White House lawn, kept fueled up and with rockets armed for eight years for just such an emergency, and flew off into the skies to shoot down all the flying saucers by himself and I missed it, former President George W. Bush is going to be remembered mainly for four things.
Starting and failing to win a war of aggression against a nation that was no threat to us.
Playing air guitar while a great American city drowned, then leaving it to rot in the mud for three years.
Getting caught flat-footed by the greatest financial meltdown in the country's history since 1929, a meltdown in great part caused by his administration and Party's policies, practices, and neglect.
Reading a children's storybook while terrorists flew hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center.
History books will note that Bush lied us and bullied us and frightened us into the War, that the only victims of Katrina he appeared to muster any compassion for were a rich Southern Senator and his own incompetent head of FEMA---"Heckuva job, Brownie."---that his "solution" to the economic collapse was to give away the Treasury to the crooks and fools who'd made the mess, that he'd been warned a month ahead of time that terrorists planned to hijack airplanes and use them to kill people. Historians will add other details, about torture, about alienating allies, about politicizing all aspects of government and turning the Justice Department into the legal arm of the Republican Party, about the attempt to hand over all our Social Security money to the same crooks and fools who wrecked our banking system. But in the popular imagination, George W. Bush will be the President who turned everything he touched to shit.
In the month or so before he left office, left town, and, let's hope, left us alone at last, squads of Bush League apologists took to the airwaves and the op-ed pages to try to persuade History to look kindly on their old boss and hero. It was irritating to listen to and read, but also amusing, because the only way most of them could find to go about making the case that Bush had been a successful President was by arguing that he hadn't actually been that bad.
The rest just made up a character named George Bush and told folk tales about a fictional Presidency.
But to the degree any of them were serious, they were forced to rely on one idea. History would prove that George W. Bush was right.
No, it won't. Like I said, History's already being written and it's not good news for Bush.
Even if the pages were still blank, though, think about what's being argued. That sometime, in the future, George W. Bush will turn out to have been a completely different person and President for the one we took him for.
In the future, George Bush is going to get yet another shot at getting it right.
He's going to be given one more second chance after a lifetime of second chances.
For a variety of reasons many Washington Media Insiders were heavily invested in the idea of Bush as a successful President and they never tired of assuring us that any day now he'd start acting like one.
David Broder was particularly fond of this pretty story.
This claque of journalists and pundits rooted overtly for Bush's transfiguration which they seemed convinced was inevitable, if it wasn't already happening right before their eyes. The day was coming soon when he would lead them up the mountain to blind them with his glory and there they would build tents for him and for Ronald Reagan on his right and Winston Churchill on his left.
They covered George Bush as a phoenix, reborn and brand new as President after every self-immolating screw-up and act of destruction. This is it, this time he'll turn it around. Every defeat was a victory in disguise, the re-defining moment.
All their hopes and expectations were based on the notion that people change.
Starting over is one of our national myths, an item of faith in the religion of America. Pack up and move. Go west, young man. Hit the gym. Change jobs. Get out of that awful marriage. Go back to school. Win the lottery. Quit smoking. Stop drinking. Give up gambling and running around. Find Jesus, and be born again.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
This was the basis of George Bush's whole political career. At age 40 or so, after a lifetime of failure, screw-ups, and disgrace, he'd put down the bottle, turned his life over to Jesus, and practically overnight become a new man. That as a new man he was hardly indistinguishable from the old one except that instead of trying to do anything for himself and making a hash of it he let smarter, more diligent, more determined and focused men use him as their tool. Nevermind that last part. The important part of the story is that he changed.
And having changed he was now ready and able to be the success he was born to be.
This idea, that people change, especially when God and Jesus take them by the hand, and that that change always leads to success and happiness, is so dear to so many Americans that they were willing to reward Bush for the great things he had not yet done on the grounds that of course now that he had changed he would do them. They made him Governor of Texas and then President of the United States, even though there was nothing in his past that suggested he'd be any good at either job and much that showed he would in fact be as bad as he turned out to be.
The past didn't matter. He'd changed. That which had been crooked had been made straight. That which was wanting had been numbered. All was not vanity and vexation and seeking after wind.
If he can do it, we can do it.
We elected George Bush President of the United States to reward ourselves for the changes we were going to make that would make us better, happier, richer, wiser, thinner, sexier, younger, stronger, cleaner, sober, worthier of love and therefore loved.
People change. Bush changed. We can change.
This is the central tenet of one of the great American religions. There's Football, there's Money, and then there's the Church of the Second Chance, which has many denominations and hundreds of forms of worship, rites, rituals, and practices. It is the religion of the self-help movement and the psycho-therapeutic industry. It has replaced Christianity in many of the mega-churches. Used to be you rose from the Mourner's Bench to testify. Now you attend workshops and form support groups. The point used to be saving one's soul for a better life to come. Now the point is saving one's sense of self-worth in the here and now, and considering how miserable, lonely, and self-loathing so many of us are, it's hard to argue that this isn't a good point for a religion to make.
People change. Bush changed. I can change.
Well, people do change. They kick bad habits and develop new, good ones. They change jobs and discover talents they never knew they had. They find satisfaction in tasks they'd never had reason to suspect they'd be any good at. They go back to school and learn new skills and new ideas and new methods. They move across country and make new friends, discover joys in scenery they'd never imagined was out there to enjoy, find the change in the weather has improved their health and mental well-being. They go to a doctor and come out with a prescription and within weeks their moods have evened out, their sadness has lifted, their anxiety is gone. They fall in love and discover that it's true, the whole world loves a lover, and they love the whole world in return.
They fall asleep misers and misanthropes on Christmas eve, secret, solitary, and self-contained as oysters, and wake up on Christmas morning as good a friend, as good a master or mistress, as good a man or woman as the good old City knows.
People change. But they transform. They don't transmutate.
The new persons they become are made out of the same stuff as the old persons they were.
And more often than not it's not the case that they have changed but that their circumstances have. They've been given an opportunity.
The apparently mediocre and deservedly obscure math teacher miserably going through the motions in a suburban high school where the principal's a blockhead, the students are without ambition, and the parents think schools exist to justify the hiring of a football coach takes a job in the inner city and a few years later is winning awards and receiving Christmas cards from former students beginning their graduate work at MIT and Cal Tech.
The drop-out from that teacher's old school enlists because there's nothing else to do and a few years later is commanding a company of Marines.
The washed-up quarterback working as a clerk in a grocery store gets a second look and a tryout and fifteen years later is leading his team to the Super Bowl.
But there's nothing magical about the apparent changes in these "new" people. If you look back, the teacher always knew his subject and had a talent for explaining it, just no one was listening to him. The Marine captain was always brave and a quick thinker and she had a way of getting people to follow her lead. Kurt Warner always had a good arm and a good eye.
The "changed" person who showed no signs before her transformation that she would become this "new" person is a rare, rare bird. And it's more likely in such a case that it's not that she didn't show any signs but that there was no one around her perceptive enough to spot them or that her circumstances before the change were so horrific that she wasn't able to be any kind of person at all, she was merely a reaction to or a reflection of the horror.
And a person can only change with a change of circumstances to the degree she has the talent or the skill or the wisdom or the discipline to take advantage of the change. A bad accountant can change accounting jobs as many times as he wants but if the problem is that he's innumerate he's not going to change himself in the process.
Change requires the person who wants to change to make smart choices about what to change into.
A man who does not take advice well, who is incurious, short-tempered, and impatient, who can't be bothered with minutia, nuance, and ambiguities, who needs to surround himself with flatterers and toadies and lackeys, who loses focus easily, who refuses to admit mistakes which means he can't correct them, who thinks that he is owed the job instead of having to earn it, is not going to change into a good President no matter how much he has "changed" by sobering up and turning to Jesus and no matter how many second chances he's given.
When people talked about Barack Obama's lack of experience as a disqualification for the Presidency, they were not looking at his biography. When other people talked about how Sarah Palin's lack of experience should not be a disqualification, because look at Barack Obama, they weren't looking at her biography.
The record of President Obama's life is the record of someone who has always been changing himself for the better, of someone who has worked exceptionally hard at whatever he's done, learned from every job he's undertaken how to do the next job, who has improved himself by leaps and bounds all his life. All Presidents have had to learn on the job. President Obama has a history of learning on the job extremely well.
The record of Sarah Palin's life, though, is the record of someone who has always managed to improve her situation while not doing very much to improve herself. It's the record of a vain and overly self-confident person who has just assumed she's deserving of and up to whatever job she's decided she wants. Look at her now and you see someone who didn't learn anything from the fall campaign except that people don't love her as much as she deserves to be loved. She has said she may run for President, she's probably going to run for the United States Senate, but she's not doing anything to prepare herself for either job. Instead she's busy teaching herself how to become a better celebrity and making headlines by whining and pitying herself in public.
The record of George Bush's life wasn't simply the record of a chronic fuck-up. It was the record of someone who learned nothing from his mistakes, of someone who did nothing different every time he was given a second chance. The myth of George W. Bush is the myth of a man who changed. But I'm not sure Bush himself ever thought for a moment he needed to change. It looks to me as though he thought of his drinking as an obstacle not a symptom of deep-rooted unhappiness or a sign of a bad or a weak character. I think he made the mistake of thinking the only problem he had was drinking and he thought of his drinking as if it was a form of temperamental asthma, a health problem that kept him from running that four-minute mile he knew he was capable of running if he could only find a cure and get up his wind. Once he quit, he thought, he was done. It never occurred to him that even if his lungs were up to it, his legs might not be, and he needed to go into training. Didn't help that he was surrounded by people who found it to their advantage to spot him a hundred yards in every race and move the finish line closer and bribe the judges and knobble the competition.
George Bush's record after he quit drinking is not the record of a man who stopped fucking up but of a man who stopped trying. As I said, Bush's successes after he got clean and sober were due to his putting himself in the hands of other people who succeeded for him without taking any of the credit.
George Bush did not change, but the story of his life could be told in a way that made it sound as if he did, and the American faith in change and our belief in a second chance is so strong that Bush's handlers and enablers hardly had to work to exploit it.
It was often said by his admirers that George Bush was authentic, that he was exactly what he appeared to be. But this was a vice not a virtue. He didn't have the character or the temperament for the job and he never tried to change that, and given that once in office he pursued policies that had proven countless times in the past to be worse than useless, there was never a real chance he would turn out to be a successful President. History will not give him another second chance.
Maybe he learned something from all the time he spent working with President Obama in the last couple months. Maybe when he's out of office and away from Dick Cheney he'll be able to listen to his father, follow his example. Maybe he'll make friends with Bill Clinton too. He was never a good President, but maybe like Jimmy Carter he can become a good ex-President...
Sorry. Can't help myself. I'm an American. I believe in second chances. The religion of Change is my religion too.
I don't think History will be kind to Bush, but Will Bunch is worried that the attempts to rewrite it in Bush's favor will continue for a long time yet to come. Good reason to worry. Long after 60 per cent of the people had figured him out, plenty Media bobbleheads were still at it.
This time, they kept insisting, he'll be different.
Some of them stayed at it till the end.
He can still turn it all around. History will come to rescue his reputation. It's happened before. Look at Harry Truman.
A real understanding of history has never been required mental equipment for a job in the Washington Press Corps.
There are historical reasons for Truman's unpopularity when he left office, reasons that have no parallel in assessments of Bush's Presidency. And the reasons for Truman's late in life ascension to beloved elder statesmen are more biographical than historical. The case for Harry Truman was made by Harry Truman in Merle Miller's Plain Speaking . Truman turned out to be his own best advocate. Historians had already begun to revise their estimation of Truman, but Truman himself is the one who changed the popular conception of his Presidency.
He told his own story in a direct, simple but eloquent, and above all truthful fashion, and he changed people's minds.
Perhaps Laura will be able to speak up for George the way Harry was able to speak up for himself, but no one should be expecting any literary surprises from George W. Bush. Grant's Memoirs were only a surprise to people who hadn't read his letters and war dispatches or met with him for extended conversations.
Cliff Schecter sums up Bush's legacy of failure.
Jon Swift delivers the rebuttal.
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You probably know the type. Character in the office, around the neighborhood, in your family who manages to involve everybody around them in their personal dramas?
Usually it's the case that all they want is to talk about it. They don't even want you to listen, just sit there and pretend to listen. You put on a sympathetic ear, make soothing and reassuring noises from time to time, give them a shoulder to cry on, they're happy. We all need to let go like that from time to time. For these types, though, letting go is just about their entire method of communication. All they talk about is their dramas, at work, at home, wherever they're engaged with other people. Their lives are one drama after another, with themselves as the plucky protagonist, sometimes the victim, sometimes the hero or heroine, always put upon in some way. Somebody is always doing them wrong, and that's how they draw you in. It sounds like they want your advice. Don't give it to them.
All they really want is validation. If your advice suggests in any way that they are not the injured party, either because they're the one doing the injuring or because as far as you can tell there was no injury inflicted at all, or if your advice doesn't encourage them to continue the drama, you become the bad guy. You just don't understand. You are on his side or her side. You're just as dumb or mistaken or corrupt or blind! If your advice suits them, if it sounds to their ears like validation, if they can take it in a way that gives them permission or encouragement to continue the drama by doing what they wanted to do anyway, then watch out, because either you've now become their new best friend and you're going to have to sit through more of this or you are going to wind up a new player on their personal stage, the next scene in their drama will begin with the line, "Well, Lance said..."
Lance probably didn't say any such thing. They hear what they want to hear.
As I said, all of us need to cry in our beer sometime and we take comfort from the company of the bartender standing there polishing a glass and looking at the ceiling while we go on and on as if he's actually listening. And that's where we get into trouble with these types. When they start, we assume they're just being like us and other people we know.
First, because we know we need a sympathetic ear now and then, we let ourselves get drawn in on the principle of treating others the way we want to be treated. Second, we've been here and done that before, with friends and family and even perfect strangers, sat and listened because we know people need us to, and giving comfort and support is an act of kindness, when it's not an act of love, and we want to be kind. Life is sorrow. You tell me your troubles and I'll tell you mine and together we'll get through the night. But by the time we realize that this type isn't doing what we expected, that they aren't in fact gathering sympathy and strength, they're gathering material, storing up ammunition, performing and looking for applause, we've been drawn in. We've been written into the script. We're either their new best friend or worst enemy or a supporting character of some kind in the ongoing soap opera of their lives.
Since most of these types are in reality rather passive---which is often why they are the type they are, in the re-telling of their lives as a drama they become dramatic themselves. They do things, instead of having things done to them, or feel as though they're doing things, instead of feeling as though things have been done to them---the worst they do is steal time from us, and what were we going to do with that half hour or hour or hour and a half we spend listening to their tales of woe, anyway?
Occasionally, they cause us minor embarrassment. We're forced to explain things we'd rather not explain or never thought we'd have to explain. It'll happen that they presume upon our sympathy. They'll think that lending a sympathetic ear means more than we intended it to mean. Or we'll find ourselves confronted by another person who's been written into the script that no, we didn't say that about him, no, we don't think she's what the type said we said we think she is, no, we didn't tell the type to do that, no, we didn't encourage them not to do it either.
Once in a while, though, you'll run across a more active version of the type, a character who isn't content to just a player in their own soap opera, he has to be the writer and director as well, and he wants you to have a major role, a big, juicy part with lots of chances to emote, although don't expect that that part is going to be yourself. You'll play whatever character he needs to you play.
I had a friend back in college who was always scheming to make money. He wasn't fussy about how he made it either. I've written about his plan to make a dirty movie financed by the son of a mobster. Charlie sold pot, fenced stolen stereos out of his dorm room, loaned money that he didn't necessarily expect would be repaid in cash---he was willing to work out deals to be repaid in kind, which was, I think, the basis of his sex life. He was the hall bookie and he played cards for what was for a bunch of college kids pretty high stakes. I don't think he cheated, but he was far and away a better poker player than anyone he chose to get in a game with and the result was as he often said later like taking candy from a baby.
He also liked to involve himself in other people's romantic lives, often taking delight in arranging the romances he got involved in. He liked bringing couples together and if you're thinking this is one of the reasons I was friends with him, you're right. Charlie was Pandarus to my Troilus several times. He was a theater major and he once cast a girl who couldn't act in a play he was directing and I was playing the lead in because he figured, correctly, that she and I would hit it off. Another time he got me a part-time job at a place where he was the manager---he was later fired for skimming from the till---because one of the girls who worked there struck him as just my type. That didn't work out quite as planned because I wound up with another girl who'd been hired because she was just his type. Charlie was hurt, but he got over it in a hurry, partly because he was glad to have another couple under his wing to manipulate, partly because it was his nature to move from one scheme to another without a look back and he quickly hired another girl who was just his type.
Charlie's scheming and manipulations were often well-intentioned. He was happy for the couples he brought together. But he could be malicious, too. He liked bringing couples together, but he liked it best when one member of that couple, particularly the female member, was already part of another couple. And he was convinced that people were happiest when they were misbehaving. It was his guiding philosophy that rules, conventions, inhibitions, long-term habits, and even someone's personal sense of right and wrong were so much bullshit and that what any individual most wanted in life was to be freed of all that bullshit so they could just do whatever they were moved to do at the moment. Which is why the crowning achievement of his career as a yente was when he arranged---or thought he'd arranged---the lesbian seduction of a straight girl who was not just dating a guy but was engaged to him.
And he was crazy with delight when what followed from that was a threesome, a double seduction of another supposedly straight girl by the first two.
Now here's the thing.
The reason I knew about this is that Charlie told me.
And that's the only reason I knew.
I knew Charlie was a gossip. But this story struck me as so far too good to be true that I was immediately convinced that it wasn't true. That's when it dawned on me that in addition to being a gossip he was quite likely a liar. But it also occurred to me that he wasn't a liar in the sense of the word I was used to thinking of. I'd always believed that all liars knew they were lying. There were a lot of things I "knew" about other people at school and about Charlie's own past that I knew only because Charlie had told me and all of a sudden a lot of those things became too incredible to believe anymore. But Charlie, it seemed to me, quite clearly believed them himself. I'll never be sure, but I think that stories mattered more to him than reality and that once he thought up a good story, that story replaced the truth in his mind. A better word than liar for what Charlie was is fabulist. Charlie lived in his stories, he lived for his stories. He did and said a lot of what he did and said for the fun of telling the story later, and if the story needed embellishment to make it a good story, he embellished.
Of course he was playing with people's lives with his stories and this was unconscionable, but I realized something else when I realized that Charlie's stories were mostly fiction, people weren't real to him in any ordinary sense. He wasn't real to himself. People were real to him in the way fictional characters are real to the rest of us. We can care for characters in books and movies and on TV, even love them, but our primary interest in them is in how well they entertain us. Charlie loved and cared for people as long as they were entertaining and he was willing to make us all entertaining if we weren't being so in our own rights. This is a way of saying that we were all characters in the movie or novel that was taking place in his head and the thing about characters in movies and novels is that they are all there to serve the story. In a way, all the characters in a story are the same character because they all have the same job to do, express the author's intentions and carry his themes and plot along. In Hamlet, all the other characters are extensions of Hamlet and Hamlet himself is a device for delivering the words, words, words that tell us Hamlet's story.
Charlie was writing the novel of his life, or filming the movie version, or both, and so Charlie was a character to himself and all the rest of us were supporting characters, and just like the supporting characters in Hamlet, we were all extensions of the hero. We were all versions of Charlie. Which was not flattering when you consider that Charlie was basically corrupt and dishonest, a thief, a cynic, a liar, and a cheat, not to mention a glutton for food, money, sex, and pleasure. And it was dangerous, because Charlie was as charming as he was manipulative. It wasn't just that he thought you were just like him, he assumed that you were doing what he would have done in your shoes and he had a knack for talking you into doing it. It didn't matter, though, if you resisted, because even if you weren't going along with one of his schemes, he believed you were, and when he told the story later, as he always did, it would sound as though you had gone along with it.
Just by being in Charlie's company, though, you were involved in his schemes, because you were giving him encouragement and validation with your sympathetic ear or, as was often the case, your open ear which he simply assumed was sympathetic. Then, even when you'd been careful to distance yourself from one of his schemes, you could still find yourself an accomplice after the fact. Because he had no shame and no idea that you might be a person in your own right with your own motivations, wishes, and beliefs and not a character in his story he didn't try to hide anything. That play, the one in which I got the girl onstage and off? Charlie used all the money we took in, which was supposed to pay off bills, with the remainder going back to the student government treasury, to buy pot for the cast party. I wasn't in on this scheme, and I didn't know about it---I didn't even smoke any of the pot, because, believe this or not, I never did, I never liked it in exactly the way I've never liked beets, that's all---but I showed up at the cast party, of course, and people couldn't help talking about where all the first-rate weed had come from, and so I was put in the position of having to choose between being an accomplice, being what would appear to everybody else as a self-righteous prig and walking out, and being a snitch.
Charlie, I learned later, from Charlie himself, naturally, stole and sold off some of the audio equipment from backstage to pay back some of the money to the student government.
Which brings me to Rod Blagojevich.
This isn't a court of law, the presumption of innocence doesn't have to apply. I think it's clear that Blagojevich is guilty of at least trying to do most of the things he's accused of. This even seems to be the heart of the defense his few remaining friends and allies are trying to muster, that all he did was try to be corrupt. Since nobody went along with it, he didn't succeed and therefore all he's guilty of is a lot of loose talk.
A lot of very loose talk.
Last month, when I wrote about Blagojevich's hair, which I still think is very dishonest hair---it has outstanding warrants on it in at least five states---our old friend Chris the Cop, who, having worked undercover for years back when he was on the job, has plenty of experience with stupid criminals, wrote:
Y'know, as a (retired) cop, I did/do rarely wonder why someone did something horrendous (i.e., REALLY STUPID) but only rarely. This would be...one of those times. Can ANYBODY explain to me what in the %$%$##
this guy Blagojevich was thinking/has been thinking/is thinking? When he KNEW the feds were listening and STILL kept running his mouth? Didn't he notice that the US Attorney, Fitzgerald doesn't give a rat's ass about who he goes after?
Didn't he see that if Fitzgerald wasn't scared to go after Scooter Libby, taking down a governor would be like doing Club Med?
I can't explain it, of course. I don't know Blagojevich. But reading over the transcripts of the the tapes that have been released and following the story as it's been unfolding, I am reminded a lot of Charlie. Naturally there are differences between Blagojevich and him, the main one being that Charlie was not a governor and didn't have the power and opportunity to cause mischief on a grand scale. Important people did not come to him because they had to deal with him and find themselves caught up in his schemes despite themselves. And although Charlie was corrupt and could be malicious, he was also kind, generous---often without expecting any generosity back; every act of beneficence on his part wasn't part of a quid pro quo---good-natured, and decent-hearted enough to wish most people well and happy. Much of his scheming was meant to help his friends or to give them a good time. For all I know, in his personal life Blagojevich is all those things too. But it appears that in his public life he is and has always been malicious, self-serving, and corrupt. The way he is like Charlie, though, is that he seems to be living in a story or a movie in his own head too. Other people are characters in that story and just as in Charlie's story and in Hamlet's story those characters are extensions of the hero, Rod Blagojevich. Like Charlie, then, he's operating on the assumption that everybody else is just like himself, malicious, self-serving, and corrupt. Now, when Charlie assumed you were just like him, that meant that besides being corrupt, you were also capable of kindness, decency, and even a form of honesty, and he allowed for that in his storytelling. There's no such mitigation in Blagojevich's assessments of people. The only reason he can come up with to explain why you aren't going along with one of his dirty deals is that you're working on a dirty deal of your own.
If that's the way he is then that would explain his brass-balled stupidity. The reason he didn't keep his mouth shut is that he assumed that everybody listening to him felt and thought and acted just as he did. Just by listening to him, however disapprovingly, however much you were appalled by him, however obvious you made it that you weren't interested, you were encouraging him and validating him, because that's what he needed from you. He wrote you into the script playing the role he needed you to play. So this is another thing he appears to have in common with Charlie. No matter what you actually did and said, when he tells the story, you come out sounding like a character in his personal drama, which means you come out sounding like a version of Rod Blagojevich.
In short, just by being in the same room with Blagojevich you get caught up in his schemes at least to the point of having other people wonder about you. And the ironic part of it is that the more you try to disentangle yourself the more people will wonder. The best protection is to avoid ever being in the same room with a guy like this. If I'd thought to, I could have steered pretty well clear of Charlie, and after college I ignored or begged off his invitations to get together, something I'm a little sorry about, because, I heard too late, Charlie died young, broke and alone, after years of poor health and early widowerhood. But if you're in politics in Illinois, and you reach a certain level, you can't steer clear of the governor.
The Washington Post had an interesting story about how Barack Obama recognized Rod Blagojevich for what he was very early on in their almost parallel careers and did an excellent job at keeping Blagojevich at a distance. That lasted right up until the fall.
Then Obama went and got himself elected President.
Types like Blagojevich, like Charlie, like the people I mentioned up top, the passive sort and the more active, will write you into their personal dramas, no matter how careful you are. Most people of this type work on very small stages, playing to very small audiences, and most people of this type only want attention and validation. Blagojevich has been open, even boastful, about what he wants, money and power, and he's been playing on a very large stage that's just gotten larger. His audience is now the whole country. He's written Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel into his story and with his appointment of Roland Burris he's added the entire Democratic membership of the United States Senate to his cast of characters.
Besides the fact that he appears to have no legal grounds for doing it, Harry Reid shouldn't have decided to deny Burris his seat. (I'm amazed Burris accepted the appointment, considering, but vanity and ambition can trump principle and self-respect in the best of people.) It was a way of walking back into the room with Blagojevich, a room Reid had already been in when he talked to him about who should be appointed. There was nothing inherently wrong in the Senate Majority leader giving a governor his opinion on the matter. There just was no way that talking to this governor wouldn't cause people to wonder. Better to let Burris take the seat and then look for a candidate to challenge him in a primary than to give Blagojevich more material for his screenplay.
Now and again, I've given into the temptation to write about my old girlfriends here.
As if you're interested.
I probably should keep my romantic past to myself. As Bertie Wooster says, a gentleman does not bandy names. But I'm sentimental and I'm nostalgic and, frankly, I miss those days and I like to remind myself of what it was like when I was young and vital and interesting enough to earn the affections of a variety of intelligent and beautiful young women.
And, I admit it, on some level I'm hoping that women who read this blog will lose track and mistake the me I am for the me I was.
Gwyneth, for one.
Uma, I'm convinced, loves me for who I am.
It's a vanity, but as vanities go a forgivable one. I hope. I don't indulge it often and I've rarely devoted a whole post to it. When I have the result has been a couple of my favorite posts of all time. This one, for example.
And, yes, she really did look like Scarlett Johansson, although I tend to think of it the other way, that Scarlett looks like her. Which is why I'm not going to see He's Just Not That Into You. In the trailer there's a shot of Scarlett peeking out of the water in the pool she's skinny dipping in and the sly smile on her face is frighteningly familiar.
I don't like time travel. It makes me nauseous.
At any rate, I try to resist and I'm proud of the fact that when I've failed to resist at least I haven't given in to the secondary temptation---going into the details.
The other day, I had half an hour to kill at Barnes and Noble, and instead of reading Twilight, as I'd planned, I picked up and polished off two thirds of Carrie Fisher's memoir, Wishful Drinking. Early on Fisher writes this about her father, the singer and former Mr Debbie Reynolds and former Mr Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher:
My father is beyond likeable. I mean you would just love him. My father also smokes four joints a day. Not for medical reasons. So I call him Puff Daddy. But he is just adorable. There's a reason he got all that high-quality pussy---except for the Miss Louisiana thing, but anyone can make one mistake. So, after he wrote his---well, he called it an autobiography, but I thought of it more as a novel. After he wrote his novel, Been There, Done That ---or as I like to call it, Been There, Done Them because it really was just about the women he'd ever slept with and how the sex was and what their bodies were like (so it is a feel-good read!).
That got me thinking. About the women I've known and how the sex was and what their bodies were like. And I thought, oh no, Lance, old pal. You're not going there. But I could go there. I'd like to go there. I'd like to write about the peculiar placement and grouping of C's three moles, about how soft M's skin was, about T's habit of saying "Sweet, oh that's sweet" in moments when other girls shouted Molly Bloom's affirmatives or took the Lord's name in vain.
Well, I just did write about them, but you know what I mean. I'd like to go into more detail, tell a story, give the time and the place and the circumstances, paint a portrait---draw a sketch, anyway---of each girl, the way I did when I wrote about the other M's neatness.
Don't worry. I'm not about to. For one thing, I agree with Bertie. See above. For another, I'm sure I would lie.
Not about the girls. I would tell as much of the truth as I could remember about them and I would do it with affection and sympathy and tact. I liked all but two of them, very much, and I still like them in my memories. A couple I even still love, in a wistfully distant, oh to be that age again way. The two I didn't like I feel sorry for now. One was not a nice person, but she was also very mixed up and unhappy. I'm not sure which was the cause and which was the effect there. Either way, she was her own worst enemy. The other was the first and so far only true narcissist I've ever met. I mean, she was literally in love with own image. It was spooky, realizing at crucial moments that I didn't have to be in the room and, in fact, as far as she was concerned I wasn't. But if I let myself write about either or both of them I think I would write sympathetically. The lies would come when I couldn't figure out a clever way to keep me out of the picture.
If I wrote about all those girls, the odds are that somewhere along the way I'd have to write about me too and I would probably not be able to do it without seeing myself as they saw me or, at any rate, as I'm afraid they saw me. I was still a punk kid when I met the blonde and my days as an apprentice Sam Malone came to an end. So we're talking about an essentially teenage and early twenty-something me, and I was no prodigy. I was inexperienced, inept, insensitive, insecure when I wasn't incredibly full of myself. With some of them I was a heartless jerk. With others I was pathetically needy. I enjoy remembering the girls. I don't enjoy remembering me. Besides, I want Gwyneth and Maggie and the others to think I was a player. I don't want them to know I was a dope and a jerk and, well, a typical adolescent guy.
Then there's this. Youth is best left to the young, even if it's my own youth. All that, the fun and the joy and the excitement and the thrill, and the heartbreak and humiliations and farce, belong to him, that kid, the one that was me.
I would be intruding.
Sure, Lance, you say that now. But wait. There'll come a lonely Saturday night when you can't fall asleep and an idea for a post will strike you. You'll start writing about how J needed half an hour to explain why, despite what the Church taught about birth control and premarital sex, she still considered herself a good Catholic and a good girl or how E's idea of pillow talk was to work herself into a jealous fury. Or about S's shyness or K's fetishes or A's enthusiastic willingness to experiment.
But if you ever catch me at this I want you to do me a favor and say to me two words.
I've been reading Hall's memoir, Unpacking the Boxes . I wouldn't say rush out and buy it. It's a worthwhile book, if you're a fan of Hall's poetry or if you're just interested in what makes a poet into a poet. But I know Hall more as an essayist , and there's something familiar about a lot of what's in the book. I suspect him of mining old ground. And he's telling a story I know by heart. It's an old standard. The story of an overachieving, overly intellectual but basically fairly typical American boy growing up in the 1930s and 40s and coming of age in the 50s. Basically, it's Pop Mannion's story and Old Father Blonde's too. It's always a pleasant if not particularly exciting or adventurous story, but I have more of a rooting interest in it when it's Pop Mannion or Father Blonde who's the hero.
Still, I'm enjoying it. Most of it. I wasn't keen on the chapter where Hall details his earliest romances:
I took her by the hand and we lost the rest of our party. We stepped inside the foyer of an apartment building and kissed desperately, mouths open, tongues licking tongues. I had necked in a balcony, but I had never kissed like this, nor pressed---
No, it's not good, is it? Tongues licking tongues? Sheesh. But let's move on---
I had never kissed like this nor pressed my body into a girl's as she leaned back against a wall. When our faces detached I remember how she looked---lipstick gone, face slathered---
Now there's an erotic image. "Face slathered."
---eyes wide in a panic of desire.---
I don't think he's trying to be funny.
Twenty-five years before the sexual revolution, our adventure went no further.
That was Jo Anne. He got a little farther with Julie, the girl he dumped Jo Anne for.
Julie was pretty, sexy, shuffling through high school corridors with books clapsed to her bosom and pelvis thrust forward.---
Nope. Can't quite picture that. Seems like an awkward way to walk.
---She was the daughter of a single mother who cooked for rich people, and after a date we sat kissing in a small servant's room. With my arm around her I felt for the first time the swell of a breast; even if it was only the side of a breast, the softness was paradisal.---
Paradisal! That was it! The word I was looking for the first time I got my hand under C's bra!
It's not the clumsy, completely unerotic writing that got to me, though. It was the sense of I had of spying.
Maybe it's memoirs not youth that are best left to the young. The writer is always present in whatever he writes. It's not that I see eighty year old Donald Hall making out with Jo Anne and Julie. It's that I see him there watching his young self with them, like Scrooge at Fezziwig's party, and then I see myself standing next to him, two old coots---well, one old coot and one middle-aged coot but still too old a coot to be peeking through a keyhole in time at these kids.
I do not want to be a Peeping Tom on my own life. And I don't want to put you in that position either.
So, that's all you have to do. Say his name. That'll stop me dead.
And you won't ever have to read about how T, when she learned that the only scene I thought was sexy in Last Tango in Paris, which we'd just seen at the campus movie house, was the one in which Maria Schneider stands up in the bath tub and---
What did you say?
Coinkidentally related: D.R Scott has posted an excerpt from Wishful Drinking.
Related erotic viewing: That scene I mentioned from Last Tango. Unsafe for work. Very, very, very unsafe for work.
Better state right now: This isn't a post about politics or about this election or even about Sarah Palin. It's about sex. Sex appeal, really.
Over in some quarters of the conservative opinionizing world Sarah Palin's not just a heroine, she's a pin-up. In fact, for many conservative opinionizers her heroism and her sex appeal are related, as if being good looking is a requisite virtue for a heroine. But then the conservative opinionizing world, especially the blogging part of it, is dominated by Gen X men whose psyches, politics, emotional and intellectual development, and libidos were frozen at whatever point during the Reagan Administration they turned fifteen. It's important to them, a matter not simply of pride but of their whole sense of self, that Republican women are the hottest women and Republican men the manliest men.
But just because their attitudes and reactions to a woman's attractiveness are about as mature as that of a group of high school sophomores who've gotten into a strip club using their big brothers' IDs doesn't mean the woman in question isn't attractive.
Sarah Palin's saying she and her family didn't rack up the bills for designer clothing Politico reported the Republicans reported she did. Michael Luo and Eric Wilson have looked into it for the New York Times Caucus blog and have discovered that some of the stores where the Palins supposedly went wild don't have any records of any of the sort of wild spending they supposedly did.
Curiousier and curiousier, but you know? I don't have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other, except that the story's distracting from the other more relevant story, that the Palins allegedly billed the state of Alaska for personal expenses and may have cheated on their taxes, although both stories might be of a piece, both showing that Sarah Palin has a habit of letting others pay for her lifestyle. Whatever she or her surrogates may have spent to dress her up and turn her out makes no nevermind to me, unless it was a violation of campaign finance laws. I'm only semi-sympathetic with Republican donors complaining that they didn't shell out to the party so that Sarah Palin could go competitive shopping with Cindy McCain and Willow can have a cooler wardrobe than Hannah Montana, because in fact they did---the gave money to help the GOP sell their product and selling politicians is mostly done on TV and selling on TV requires good visuals. Dressing and making up Sarah Palin, and John McCain for that matter, is as important as getting the lighting right. The amount spent, if that amount was spent, seems excessive, but what do I know? In Jane Hamsher's professional opinion the same effects could have been achieved at a lot cheaper cost. Still, it's the Republicans' money.
Nance and Erik have both kind of come to Palin's defense on this one, and I can see their point. Women in politics are held to a higher standard than men, especially when it comes to how they look. (Ask Joe Biden, though, about how standards are applied when it comes to debating skills.) And men have it easier and cheaper. They can get by with a couple of good suits, a change of shirts, and two ties, a red one and a blue one.
Erik writes, "Unfortunately, women in public life are judged on how they dress. And considering that her real national constituency is right-wing males like Rich Lowry who see her as a sex object as well as a political figure, it was not unreasonable for the Republican Party to make these expenditures."
Nance notes, "Sarah Palin is actually a very pretty woman. Beautiful, even. And so you get the basic irony at the heart of femininity — the better you look, the more you have to spend to make people think so."
Sarah Palin's beautiful? If Nance says so.
As Archie Goodwin says, beauty is merely a matter of taste. As my tastes run, I ought to be smitten by Sarah Palin. I've always been a pushover for pint-sized brunettes. When I first saw her picture I thought she looked like Karen Valentine from Room 222 and I had a crush on Karen Valentine when I was a kid.
My crush did not transfer.
Maybe it's the voice. More likely it's the fact that she's a Right Wing religious fundamentalist kook. Personality plays a big part in these things and while I don't believe a person's personality is entirely defined by her politics, all I know about Sarah Palin is her politics and they're not pretty.
But I think the real reason I can look at Sarah Palin and not see what I saw when I looked at Karen Valentine is that when I look at Sarah Palin I see the Republican candidate for Vice-President of the United States and I'm just not inclined to see candidates for Vice-President as sex objects.
I've written before about how creepy it is to speculate about the sex lives of strangers and no matter how well we feel we know them candidates for high national office are strangers. But it's only human to respond to another human being who is beautiful and sexy. There are lots of women, and men, who find Barack Obama both beautiful and sexy. John Kennedy was routinely described as being as handsome as a movie star, which means that he probably had the same effect on people's libidos as a movie star. Women swooned for Thomas Jefferson, and we all know the joke behind the plaque, "George Washington slept here." And wasn't there a prominent journalist who gushed in print or on the air that Bill Clinton was starring in her erotic dreams?
If Nance says Sarah Palin's beautiful, then she probably is, according to most people's tastes. And since she's youthful, energetic, a former beauty queen who's kept herself in shape, I don't blame Rich Lowry for sitting up straight in his chair when she winked at him during the debate. The Democrats have a number of attractive women running for Congress this year. If I thought one of them was winking at me, maybe I'd sit up straight in my chair too.
I wouldn't write about it though.
But here's the thing. Maybe I'd have a Lowry, but I seriously doubt it. I think Democratic candidates for Congress could wink at me till the cows came home and my likely reaction would be to think they had something in their eye and offer to run to the drugstore to pick them up some Visine.
Candidates for Congress don't make many guest appearances in my erotic daydreams.
Actually, no politicians do.
I'll go further. Almost no women on the job, any job, feature in my fantasy life. The exceptions are actresses and rock stars. Otherwise, it doesn't matter to me if a politician, a cop, a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a cashier, a toll booth attendant, a lumberjack, a TV anchorwoman, a cabbie, a jet pilot, etc. etc. etc. is objectively gorgeous. All I see when I deal with her is what I see when I deal with a guy in the same job.
I'm not claiming any special virtue here.
I'm not boasting of exceptional self-control and mental discipline.
I'm admitting to a sexual hang-up I believed to have been caused by an inconveniently-timed emergence from the latency period and the shock resulting from the sight of Mrs Fulmer slipping off her high heels under her desk.
Mrs Fulmer was my third grade teacher.
And I was in love with her.
Mrs Fulmer was a brunette. I don't think she was pint-sized. In fact, I think she was rather tall. Hard to say. I was eight. I had to look up to see the shortest sixth graders. Seventh and eighth graders might as well have been basketball players. Teachers were giants. Mrs Fulmer might have not have been an actual giant, but she was long and leggy. I've always been a pushover for long and leggy brunettes too. And she wore glasses. I've also been a pushover for brunettes, long and leggy or pint-sized, in glasses, which makes me wonder if I'm in denial about Sarah Palin. But then I'm a pushover for blondes in glasses too, and redheads. Actually, when you get right down to it, I'm just a pushover, but nevermind. What I remember most vividly about Mrs Fulmer is that whenever she sat down behind her desk she used to kick her shoes off. I had a seat up near the front of the classroom and I had a good view of this fascinating habit of hers. I used to watch for it hopefully every day.
For about a week.
It wasn't long before it began to embarrass me. I started to think I was doing something wrong and I was afraid I was going to get caught. Caught at what, I wasn't sure. I just knew that whatever it was, it was inappropriate, although I probably didn't know what inappropriate meant. I'm not sure I actually quit looking, but I think I made an effort not to. That may have been when I developed a habit of assiduous doodling and boy, Freud would have a field day with that one, wouldn't he! At any rate, it was after third grade when that complaint began to appear regularly in teachers' comments on my report cards. "Lance is often drawing superheroes and fighter planes in his notebooks when he should be paying attention to his lessons."
Mrs Fulmer had a baby over the summer and didn't come back to school the next year. I know I wasn't brokenhearted about that the way Linus was when Miss Othmar left teaching to get married. And while I can't say I was relieved when my fourth grade teacher, Mrs MacLane, turned out to be a plump, matronly, decidedly middle-aged lady who didn't take her shoes off in class---at least, I don't think she did. I never checked.---I'm sure I was happier for it. Meant I was not shy and embarrassed around her, which was a good thing, as she turned out to be my all time favorite teacher. I did not have a crush on Mrs MacLane and I did not have a crush on any of my teachers in the years that followed, including high school, college, and grad school. It may just have been the case that I never had another teacher as attractive as Mrs Fulmer, but I believe it's because either out of self-defense or guilt or just a precocious sense of the rightness of it, from fourth grade on up I looked at all my teachers as teachers.
Which is to say as individuals on the job with work to do. And my interactions with them, my judgments about them, and my feelings towards them were based on how they went about doing that work. This was entirely the opposite of a mature sensibility and sensitivity. It was all residual guilt and embarrassment. But over time it became a habit, the kind of habit that's comforting and makes it easier to get through the day, and as I grew up and got out into the world and the number of adults on the job I had to deal with expanded, I transferred the habit to all women I dealt with while they were on the job.
The result is this polite, well-adjusted, gentlemanly, and seemingly harmless middle-aged schnook nodding attentively as you're writing the ticket, delivering your diagnosis, handing him his change, yelling at him for pushing another deadline, and pointing out where his brake pads have worn down and explaining why it's going to cost him an arm and a leg to get them fixed because he needs new shoes, rotors, and calipers too, and making your day and your job a little easier because he's not staring at your tits or trying to charm your phone number out of you or prove he knows how to do your job better than you do.
The result is also that if the Democrats ran a beautiful, youthful, pint-sized brunette and former beauty queen in glasses who was also incompetent, unprepared, dishonest, and quite possibly stupid, for Vice-President and she persisted in winking at me through the television cameras instead of giving coherent and substantive answers to the moderator's questions, the only reason I'd be sitting up straighter in my chair would be that I was reaching for something to throw through the TV screen.
The twelve year old is dealing with a crisis in his Sims 2 game.
One of his Sims has cheated on his wife.
Not a surprise, of course, the twelve year old informs me. The philandering Sim is a Romance Sim. Sims are driven by their needs but also by their aspirations. Some Sims aspire to money, others to the family life, others to popularity, some to knowledge, and still others to romance. Romance here apparently means being horny as a hound dog. You have to keep your Sims on track, otherwise they'll pursue their aspirations to the point of neglecting their needs, all the other things that are necessary to keeping themselves alive, healthy, and happy.
When you've got a Romance Sim on your hands, it's a good idea to keep him or her out of the same room with another Romance Sim.
I asked him what happens when you don't.
I think I need to take a closer look at what's going on in Sim World.
At any rate, Romance Sims do not make the best spouses, for obvious reasons, and marriage is a bad move for them and a problem for you the player.
I asked him why he let this Sim get married. He didn't. The game handed him a pre-built family.
Do I need to tell you that this Romance Sim is married to a Family Sim?
The twelve year old is appalled by his Sim's adultery. "He's got two daughters!" This is not moral indignation on his part. It's a purely pragmatic reaction. Divorce is apparently an option that the Sim wife can choose on her own, although, since she's a Family Sim, she's not likely to do that. She'll continue to pursue her aspiration but now at the expense of her needs and her happiness and health will suffer. What's more likely to happen is that the cheating Sim will run out on his family. If he does it will be to chase yet another Sim not the one he's already cheated with. Romance Sims flit from flower to flower. If this family dissolves it will mean ruin for both the cheating Sim and his wife. Neither will be able to achieve their goals. There will be repercussions that will affect his other Sims. The twelve year old isn't about to let that happen.
"I can fix it," he says.
How many people have said that about failing marriages in the non-Sim universe.
It's interesting to me that Sims 2 is teaching him some very unromantic but important things about marriage. First, that marriage is, whatever else it is, a financial arrangement. A marriage in Sim World is what it is in our world, as the poet and essayist Wendell Berry has pointed out, a merging of two economies.
Second, a marriage doesn't just involve two people.
Even if there are no kids,
When a marriage breaks up a little piece of the community the couple lives in breaks apart and a small section of the local economy is shaken up.
There's a reason societies tend to frown on divorce. It is destabilizing, socially and economically.
That's not an argument against it, just a practical observation that you have to keep in mind when you're playing Sims 2.
What I don't know is if this is teaching the twelve year old a sad fact about human nature.
There are some people who are Romance Sims. They live to fall in love. They are as compelled to flit from flower to flower as bees are.
And for some reason these Romance Sims don't avoid getting married.
And when they get married, somehow it almost always turns out that they marry a Family Sim.
With this post and yesterday's I'm worried I might be in danger of being suspected of closet feminism.
I've said it before. I'm not a feminist. I barely count as halfway enlightened. I am often quite cheerfully sexist. But I'm also a devout democrat. Note the small d. That makes me a you-ist. I tend to take people on their own terms. If we were to meet I'd deal with you as you and I'd cheer you on in the job of you being you, as long as that job doesn't include hurting other people. Consequently I often appear to be acting and speaking and writing in ways that can be misconstrued as feminist or at least sympathetic to feminist goals and thought. But trust me, you can't trust me.
So when I tell you that this article, Marry Him, by Lori Gottlieb in the latest Atlantic caused me to hurl the magazine across the room in disgust I want you to believe that I'm not trying to pass myself off as some sort of sensitive post-gender male fellow traveler to the Cause. Western Blogtopia (TM Skippy) is full up to the back teeth with such types and I can point you to their blogs if you're looking for someone to do your dishes. Here it's just insensitive, old-fashioned, sexist me.
And I don't want you thinking that I was disgusted by any implicit sexism in the article---though I don't much care for its anti-you-ism which is here, as it often is, really a form of You should be like what I tell you to be like and nevermind what I am-ism.
What ticked me off was Gottlieb's, possibly unconscious, propagandizing on behalf of perpetually adolescent men and her advocation of marriage as an economical form of ensured quality day-care.
Gottlieb is a single-mother who has come to regret her singleness. The father of her son is an anonymous sperm donor not, she informs us with a sigh of exasperation at her own short-sightedness, one of the several boyfriends she might have married but dumped because she thought they just weren't good enough and she refused to settle.
Guess what her advice is to young women who may be considering following in her footsteps and starting families all on their own.
That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)
Gottlieb thinks husbands are essential to child-rearing but not for any old-fashioned crypto-patriarchal "A child needs the example of a good strong man" reasons. She advocates marrying and settling on purely practical grounds.
Husbands are a cheap and convenient way to get yourself a live-in nanny.
The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?
Before I start unpacking this, I have to say that to a degree I agree with Gottlieb on this point. I think it's a good idea to have help when you set out to have and raise kids. Child-rearing is a fifteen-person job (It really does take a village) that we've downsized to four, two parents, the kid's teacher, and whatever sort of babysitter the parents can afford. Further downsizing it to one parent usually means downsizing the whole job to two and a quarter, because for most single-parents, who are mostly single-mothers, good and reliable babysitters are out of their price range, and thus increases the burdens exponentially.
Let's ignore for now, because Gottlieb ignores it, the fact that most single-mothers aren't single because they refused to settle but because the guy they settled on has removed himself from the picture.
It's not the marry first part of Gottlieb's argument I don't like. It's the settling part.
First off, this idea, that a nice, decent guy who will take out the trash, play with the kids, and give you twenty-minutes alone from time to time is so worth settling on that you should overlook his minor flaws and eccentricities and put-up with his essential boorishness, is advancing the cause that's the theme of countless beer commercials, far too many sitcoms, and movies like Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin (but not of Superbad, which I've seen lumped in with the first two. It doesn't deserve that, but that's another post), which is this:
Nice, decent guys (nice and decent being defined as ME) deserve to get laid by any woman they lust after as a reward for their niceness and decency and nevermind the fact that these nice, decent guys act like oversized twelve year old boys who never learned manners, good grooming, or otherwise how to conduct themselves like responsible adults.
Basically the argument here is the same as Gottlieb's, babes should learn to settle. Gottlieb doesn't and wouldn't use the term babes, but she seems to assume that all the young women she's advising are intelligent, vibrant, talented, successful, sexy, and otherwise wonderful, because nowhere does she sincerely suggest that while they're settling for some guy the guy might be settling for her. He's getting the better end of the deal every time. It would be one thing if Gottlieb was giving young women the advice Rosalind gives the heartbreaking shepherdess Phebe in As You Like It, "Sell when you can, you are not for all markets." But she isn't. She's saying take what you can get, even if you know you deserve better, because better just isn't likely to come along. Gottlieb doesn't like it that it's most often the woman who has to do the settling but she accepts it as if it's an unalterable fact of life, so it's the same idea: Great women should be happy to take up with less than great men.
She doesn't seem to realize that the reason this unfairness might seem unalterable is that many men don't see why they should have to alter themselves and that she's just given them one more reason not to see it.
As for Gottlieb's arguments for settling and her extremely pragmatic view of marriage, I feel I first have to remind you that I am not a romantic with any starry-eyed ideas about love and marriage. In fact, when it comes to marriage, there are days when I feel like the P.G. Wodehouse character who declared, "Marriage isn't a means of preserving love, sir. It merely mummifies the corpse."
But I just can't let Gottlieb get away with advocating settling and not marrying for love on the grounds that the daily grind of raising kids and running a household take the "zing" out of any relationship. True enough. But if two people who love each other and have decided to spend the rest of their lives together because they want to be with each other not just because they need cheap live-in babysitting grow weary and irritable with each other over things like paying the bills and cleaning up after a sick kid and arguing over whether or not to order take-out or make sandwiches because both partners are too tired to make dinner, what's going to happen between two people who don't especially care for each other?
It may be that too many of us, men as well as women, only think we have to settle because we have a too romantic view of either ourselves or of life. It may be that we get in our own way and prevent ourselves from falling in love with the real person at hand, Mr or Miss Good Enough, because we're too obsessed with finding Mr or Miss Not Just Right But Perfect.
I don't know.
I do know that love is essential to a marriage. It's essential to raising children. Children don't just need to be loved. They take it for granted anyway when they are. They need to see people loving and caring for others in order to understand what it means, how it works, how to do it. Watching a couple of respectful partners who've settled on each other passing them back and forth on schedule teaches them that they are either burdens or that other people are there just to be utilized.
This is why I am not a believer in staying together for the sake of the children. I am in favor of staying in love for the sake of the children, which is an idea that deserves some more thought, on my part. It's better that children move back and forth between loving step-parents than staying put with unloving parents.
Love is the most important thing, the first requirement, and to support this I will quote from scripture. My scripture, The Book of Cheers.
There's an episode from the tenth season when Sam and Rebecca are trying to have a baby together. It's the last episode of that misguided story arc, in fact, when they realize that they are making a mistake because they don't love each other. Sam comes to this realization first but he's reluctant to accept it. He wants to be a father. But he wants his kids to grow up happy and secure and he's afraid that won't happen if he doesn't love their mother. Then he meets a man, the father of two boys, who has been married for a long time. Sam doesn't flat out ask him if it's possible for two people who don't love each other to be happy together. He asks what's the most important quality for a successful marriage. The man doesn't hesitate.
"Love," he says.
Sam looks dismayed. He tries to suggest there might be other more important things. "What about companionship? What about a sense of humor?"
The man makes a scoffing noise. "A sense of humor, what's that? Look at Martin and Lewis. They had a sense of humor. Were they happy?"
Sam reacts as if this is the most profound insight in the world. "No."
The man insists that love is what's most important.
Sam says, "So you and your wife really love each other?"
"Nah," the man says, "We can't stand each other. It's been twenty years of living hell for me."
We hear the man's bratty kids squabbling in the background and yelling insults and taunts at him. The man looks at Sam sheepishly.
The man says, "On good days, I pray for death."
Usual offer here. Gottlieb's article is available online but I can't tell if it's only for subscribers. If it is, I'll be glad to email you a copy if you drop me a note.
Mythologically updated below, Thursday morning.
There are times when I almost feel sorry for George W. Bush. And if his bumbling was limited to tripping over the furniture and spilling drinks on visiting heads of state, instead of starting immoral wars, letting cities drown, stealing elections, looting the national treasury, and corrupting every single Federal regulatory agency, this would be one of those times.
This is one of those embarrassing misperceptions that any of us could make fools of ourselves with.
The fact that Bush thinks "A Charge to Keep" is a painting of a heroic character striving to overcome challenges and troubles when it's actually a horse thief with a posse close on his trail is ironic, but not indicative. Sure, we think it's funny and just like him to mistake a crook for a saintly cowpoke. ("I looked into his eyes...") But it would have been just like anybody in his situation when he found the painting and took it to heart. A man coming off years of failure, trying to quit drinking, and looking for help from God can be forgiven for finding inspiration in a painting like this one. There isn't anything in it to tell us that the rider's a horse thief. It's meaning is dependent on its context; the story it illustrates tells us what's going on. Without that, it is a picture of a rugged Marlboro man urging his horse up a steep hill, and that's what Bush, and plenty of other struggling ex-drunks, would have felt like.
That the character in the painting looks a little like Bush naturally would have intensified his identification with it and confirmed his seeing in it a symbolic reflection of his own struggles.
It is like Incurious George to have fallen in love with a painting and not thought to look into its history or want to know more about its painter.
But if he had learned the truth, it might not have changed his feelings about it or for it. And I can't see anything particularly Bush-like in that, nor can I see that anyone else inspired by any work of art should be required to give up their identification with a mistaken interpretation of it.
I'm not saying that a student who has misread a poem by Robert Frost ought to be given an A on his exam anyway or that a critic who's missed the point of a movie or a book or a painting ought to be handed a book contract to expand upon her bloomer.
I just don't think anyone should have to give up the comfort or consolation of a personal myth because the inspiration of that myth turns out not to have been what they thought it was. I don't think they should be laughed at for their mistake either. If Bush ever learns the truth about the painting, I'll understand if he wants to continue to see in it what he saw in it originally.
We all need our personal myths, the stories and symbols and songs and pictures we've woven together in attempt to explain ourselves to ourselves or at least make us feel as though we have some sort of explanation, that we have a meaning even if we can't quite put it into words. Listen to this song, we urge our friends. Watch this movie! Read this poem! Then you'll know! You'll know me!
Which is why we're so disappointed, even angry, when they don't love that song, aren't taken with that poem, hate that movie. They don't know it but in rejecting our myths we can't help feeling that they're rejecting us.
I gave up a long time ago trying to explain that the movie version of The Natural is not a baseball movie or even an adaptation of Bernard Malamud's cynical novel. It's the story of a very talented young man who thought too highly of himself and because he thought too highly of himself threw away his opportunity to do what he loved to do and what he did well and who then, at an age when he no longer had a right or a reason to expect it, is given a second chance. And I can't begin to tell you, because I can't explain it, or I'm afraid to explain it, to myself, why Lost in Translation was my favorite movie of the last ten years, until I saw Juno, which I also can't explain my deep affection for.
These movies just make sense to me---in the sense that they help me feel that there's some sense to life. My life.
There are days when I have to listen to Bruce Springsteen sing
Everybody Has A Hungry Heart forty-six times. There are times when I read poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Lux, and Robert Frost as if they were prayers, times when I stare long and longingly at paintings by Edward Hopper and Vincent Van Gogh the way I used to stare at the stained glass windows in our church during mass.
I love the novels of Charles Dickens for themselves but, while I wouldn't ever call them my saints, some of his characters---Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller, Captain Cuttle, Betsy Trotwood, Scrooge and his nephew Fred, Mr Micawber, Ralph Nickleby, Bradley Headstone---have become to me expressions of my personal daemons and demons.
Hawkeye Pierce is one of my saints, as is Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Natty Bumpo, King Arthur, Superman, George Bailey, Sam Vimes, Betty Suarez, and Adrian Monk.
The list of real people, living and dead, I've privately canonized is too long to get into here and, besides, it includes some people who would be terrifically embarrassed to learn they're included on my list.
And who's to say that the meaning and inspiration I find in all these people and characters and poems and songs and stories and movies and plays is or isn't really there?
These are my myths.
I'm sure you have yours.
Want to let us in on a few?
Updated while not riding to hounds: Jennifer of Saying yes...has a painting she loves whose actual subject she didn't notice when she first fell in love it. Doesn't make her feel at all sorry for George Bush, though.
N2 on Dtrt myr's sxy txt msgs:
Detroit’s mayor becomes approximately the millionth public official to learn that it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. The Free Press FOIAs his text-message records and discovers a rather mundane game of hide the salami going on between the country’s first hip-hop mayor and his chief of staff. Which is tawdry, but only tawdry, until you consider that the denial of said affair under oath was the centerpiece of a lawsuit brought last summer against the city, one that led to a number of whistle-blowing cops swallowing a $9 million canary. I won’t bog you down with details, which you fans of public-official ugly-bumping can look up yourselves; it’s a complicated story and the Freep provides a million links. Just absorb the takeaway lesson: Sometimes you have to stop lying, even if it’s really, really embarrassing.
Go read Nance's whole post with links to the juicy details, Digital lipstick on his collar.
What I was saying the other day?
I wasn't kidding.
If you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, don't take my word for it. Chew on this. Back in June, when Optimus Prime and his friends hit the cineplexes, I was terrified I'd draw the short straw and wind up being the one who had to take the Mannion boys to see it. The blonde was just as worried on her own behalf. But then Old Mother and Father Blonde stepped in. They volunteered to take the boys. I thought this was above and beyond and tried to talk them into taking them to Ratatouille instead. But you're saving that one for the drive-in on Cape Cod, said Mother Blonde. They won't mind seeing it again, I said. No, said Father Blonde, we'll make the sacrifice. I'll bring my earplugs. We'll survive.
They took them. The survived. They enjoyed it!
It's a good movie, they said.
And they were right. We watched it for family movie night last week. It is a good movie, for what it is, a simple aliens invade the earth and blow things up action-adventure tale.
A lot more fun than Tom Cruise's War of the Worlds, that's for sure. And Shia LaBeouf is a much more bearable action adventure hero than Cruise. Cruise always seems to be trying too hard when he plays an action-adventure hero, as if he thinks he has to prove something. In Transformers, LaBeouf takes a much more relaxed approach to his character, as relaxed as any character can be who's being hunted by giant robots from outer space.
As Sam Witwicky, LaBeouf is good at the derring-do, good with the throwaway quip---he has a great sense of humor---and he's good at playing a character who is, although smart, brave, and desperate enough not to give a damn, still in way over his head and knows it and who is frantically making it up as he goes along. In other words, he shows why he's a fine choice to play the son of Indiana Jones and Marian Ravenwood in the next Indy movie.
He doesn't show why he's one of the best young actors working today. You have to watch The Greatest Game Ever Played to get a sense of what he can do that way.
The question for the future is will Hollywood force on him a career that's a little too much like Harrison Ford's or will he be allowed to become what he seems best suited to become, his generation's Jimmy Stewart, whose shoes he has already walked around in a little bit, sort of.
At any rate, not only is he good, the whole human cast of main characters does a nice job. All the important human characters are interesting and appealing, just enough so that their stories don't get in the way of the plot and the action. That includes Jon Voight as the Secretary of Defense, Josh Duhamel as the Army Special Ops officer who has Sam's back, and John Turturro as a cynical and full of himself government agent who turns out to be the kind of guy you want on your side when the chips are down. This is important because the Transformers themselves are short on charisma.
That's my review. Fun movie, good cast. Nothing deeper than that needs saying. But you know I'm not going to stop there, right?
The movie has a love interest. Of course it does. And she's one of the reasons back in the spring I cringed at the thought of having to go to the movie. I cringed the other night when she first appeared on screen. Her name is Mikaela and she is played by the Playboy Playmate gorgeous and unfortunately surnamed Megan Fox, and when I saw her in the trailers and then again in her early scenes I was dismayed.
Great, I thought, another movie in which a nice guy geek pines after and then wins the heart of the school princess.
This is an old, old story, as old as Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk, the story of the poor boy who through luck, pluck, and decency wins the hand of a lady-fair far beyond his initial reach or apparent deserving.
In the old stories the boy did this by changing. He became a hero and a prince through his great deeds.
In its current version (see the movies of Judd Apatow and his imitators and most TV shows that revolve around teenage love and lust), it's the princess who changes. She learns to see that the poor boy is deserving in and of himself. Nice guy geeks just make better lovers.
At first glance, this is what I expected to happen in Transformers.
But it turns out that with Sam and Mikaela there's more than meets the eye.
Sam is not a nice guy geek. He is a smart, resourceful, competent young man who, because he is still so very young, hasn't figured out yet how best to present himself to the world. This makes him awkward, but it doesn't make him any less smart, resourceful, or competent. This is all to say that he is already something of a hero and a prince and when he's looking around for his princess and his eye and heart settle on Mikaela he has reasons not to expect her response to be, In your dreams!
He's not dreaming, and because he's not Sam and Mikaela's little love story (which I should point out is never given so much attention that it gets in the way of the main plot; the action never stops just so they can smooch) is not a nice guy geek's daydream.
This has a lot to due with Sam's being played by Shia LaBeouf. But it's also there in the script. Somebody, probably director Michael Bay, since he's something of a control freak, decided that there wasn't time for Sam to be a human version of a Transformer, a beat-up 1974 Camaro who reveals his secret identity as a weapon of destruction when the bad guys attack. He needed to be a young hero from the start.
But there's even more to it than that, because of what the concept requires Mikaela to be.
Every important human character, including Sam's goofy parents, plays a role in helping Sam and Optimus Prime defeat Megatron, including Mikaela. Which means she's not there just to admire Sam. She's got work of her own to do, work she's able to do because she turns out not to be the princess I took her for.
She's first seen hanging with the popular crowd at her and Sam's high school, but she's not really one of them. Sam is what he is already. She's the one with the secret identity. She's the transformer.
Mikaela, it turns out, is a working class kid whose incredible good looks allow her to pass as a princess. But once the action gets going and her hair gets mussed and her make-up runs, she starts to look like what she is, one of those slightly hard-edged working class girls whose beauty is a mixed blessing---it gives them advantages that allow them to rise in the world, but only in certain and limited directions, and it often brings them the wrong kind of attention.
Among the popular kids, especially the boys, Mikaela is only granted membership as long as she's content to be a beautiful trophy.
This is in fact how Sam first sees her and it's why she doesn't like him right away. She knows why he wants her, it's the same reason her jock boyfriend wants her, as a prize. The difference is that Sam can't give her what the popular kids are giving her, a disguise to wear.
Mikaela isn't just a scullery maid passing as a princess. She's the daughter of a criminal. Her father's a car thief who used to take her along when he went out to steal cars, and when he got caught, she got caught. She's a convicted thief herself.
This means that her and Sam's story isn't a re-telling of Aladdin. It's a re-telling of Cinderella.
Mikaela doesn't prove she's a natural born princess by leaving behind a glass slipper, though. She proves it by driving a big honking tow truck right into the thick of the last battle with Megatron and helping to save the day.
She's able to do this because her car thief dad taught her everything he knows about cars. How to break into them, how to start them without a key, how to strip them down, how to fix them, and how to drive them very fast.
She's a motorhead, and since Sam is something of a motorhead himself, she's a girl after his own heart.
And it's only as her past is revealed to him and he's forced to see her as herself and not as projection of his own vanity that they can actually begin to like each other.
(It's a sign of what a well-crafted movie this is that they do this while missiles are flying and giant alien robots are trying to kill them and the action never misses a beat while they're at it.)
At the end of the day, then, Sam and Mikaela come together because they have things in common.
This isn't a big deal within the movie itself. It's just one of a number of intelligent decisions the filmmakers made. It's a big deal, though, when you put Transformers into a line-up of other movies and TV shows in which the nice guy geek wins the princess is the story of the love story.
It's telling a generation of young men who apparently need telling that they shouldn't be flattering themselves that they deserve to be loved by princesses just because they're such nice guys. It's telling them that when it comes to girls there is more than meets the eye and they should look around for people with whom they share interests. It's telling them that there has to be more than meets the eye about themselves. Nobody is going to love you because you "deserve" to be loved.
When the story's over and Sam and Mikaela are alone together they will have things to talk about. Unlike the run of the mill nice guy geek wins the cheerleader story, Sam and Mikaela will have more to do together than sit around and admire what a nice guy the nice guy geek has turned out to be.
They will have real things to say to each other, like, "Sweety pie, hand me that three inch bit."
Credit where credit is due update: In the comments, SAP reminds me that blog roll favorite, John Rogers, of Kung Fu Monkey, worked on the screenplay, so unless John himself comes along to tell me otherwise, I'm just going to assume that all the stuff I liked about the story is his doing.
Your turn: What's your favorite action-adventure movie?
Also, little while back, Carrie Rickey, film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was looking for readers' thoughts on which young actors today are likely to become the big stars of the future. Shia LaBeouf is at the top of her list. Who's on yours?
Think I'm guilty of expecting that all writers and directors of movies and TV shows can be, ought to be, and want to be as insightful, subtle, sophisticated, and clinically objective in their portrayals of human behavior as Chekhov was in his stories and plays.
So I wind up reviewing a fun and silly movie like Mrs Doubtfire as if it was meant to be a contemporary exploration of love, marriage, vanity, and ego along the lines of Chekhov's short novel, The Duel.
Fairest way to critique works of art, I keep reminding myself, is to ask, What job did the artists involved give themselves to do? In what ways were they limited by time, by budget, by resources (in the case of the performing arts, this means casting), and by the conventions of the genre or medium they've chosen to work in? And, finally, given those limitations, how well did the artists do their assigned job?
It's not fair to judge a work of art based soley on how well it stacks up against another work of art you happen to prefer.
It's fine to mention other works, as long as they're examples of other artists' attempts to do the same job, and you keep in mind the ways both sets of artists were limited. So it's ok to bring up Tootsie in a discussion of Mrs Doubtfire, but you shouldn't compare either to Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard.
Which I didn't do in my post on Mrs Doubtfire yesterday.
But I did sort of imply I wished it had been a different sort of movie than it was, not a gender-bending comedy like Tootsie but a more realistic meditation on love and marriage, like, say, um...well...a movie version of Chekhov's The Duel.
Of which there isn't one.
I don't think there's been a successful big screen adaptation of any of Chekhov's works.
This is not surprising when it comes to his plays, which were very stagy.
But many of his stories could make good movies.
Chekhov died in 1904, at the age of 44. He might have seen a few silent movies but he probably never bothered to think how his stories and plays might be translated to the screen.
Of course, if he was alive today, that's all he would be thinking about, how to tell the stories he wanted to tell in pictures. Dickens would be writing for movies and television too. Shakespeare, as well.
Shakespeare and Dickens thought in visuals anyway. They invented movies before there were movies. Shakespeare complained through the narrators of a couple of his histories that movies hadn't been invented yet and he was forced to make the audience rely on their imaginations to "see" the battle scenes he would have portrayed for them if he'd had the medium.
But although their very pictographic imaginations would have made them natural screenwriters, that's not why I think they'd be working in Hollywood or for HBO today. I think it because they wrote for money, and movies and TV are where the money is. At the beginnings of their careers, both young men were ambitious hacks. That they each turned out to be great artists might have come as shocks to both of them.
Chekhov started writing for money too. He was a young doctor, and doctors back then didn't get rich. He needed extra cash to support his brothers' families and the quickest way he found to get it was to write short comic fillers for newspapers and magazines.
So if Chekhov was around today and still a doctor...well, maybe he wouldn't be writing at all, not having the time---young doctors in his day didn't work as many hours---and he still needing to pick up some extra cash might still be writing for newspapers and magazines.
But if that took him where it really did take him, into the company of other, more serious writers and then into the company of actors and theater people, a play or two might come of it, but a screenplay or three might too.
And I'm thinking that if Chekhov wrote a screenplay, given his penchant for stories with many characters and multiple plot lines, his talent for having his characters talk over each other and past each other, when they are not simply mumbling their thoughts out loud, and his clinical bordering on cynical view of human nature, there'd be only one director he should sell the rights to.
Of course, that director is dead, recently so, but if I can bring Chekhov alive and kicking into the 21st Century, I can resurrect him.
Editor's note. Saturday, 1 PM: This post is unfinished. Author claims he has to go to his kid's soccer game and promises it will be revised and concluded later this afternoon. Editor suspects author is really running off to the track to make the 2:15 at Monticello. Author denies this indignantly. Editor too tired to argue. Lets author go, offers his apologies to readers.
Second and shocked editor's note. Saturday 3 PM: Author was at a a soccer game. Game ended in a 3-3 tie, if you count the goal the ref didn't count because she made a bad call. Author has finished post. Editor too flabbergasted to comment.
Keep in mind that I enjoyed last night's Mannion Family Movie Night feautre, Mrs Doubtfire and this is going to be another one of those reviews where I pick apart a movie I claim to have liked.
But I enjoyed it despite several things I seriously disliked about it, and disliked enough that it's hard for me to enjoy it as much in retrospect, and among those things are: Sally Field, how the story is set up to make us root for two things that just aren't going to happen---Field's and Robin Williams' characters getting back together and Robin Williams' impersonation of a woman making him a better man---and the clumsy and stupid way the comic catastrophe is brought about.
I'll start with Sally Field.
I'd forgotten there was a period when Sally Field was regularly cast as a romantic leading lady. It was a good long stretch measured by Hollywood time, about 14 years, from Norma Rae in 1979 up to Mrs Doubtfire in 1993. Her next movie after Mrs Doubtfire was Forrest Gump, in which she plays Tom Hanks' mother. And I think she was born to play mothers...and teenagers...and nuns...that is, women who for one reason or another are not objects of romantic and erotic desire. I don't know if the problem is that she is just too cute and cuddly and trying to play a love scene with her is like trying to play one with a teddy bear or if she's just not a good enough actress, but I can't think of a movie in which she and her leading man gave off any real sparks. Maybe she was just always mismatched with an implausible leading man for her. Whatever the reason, whenever she and her leading man were on screen together---think of her and Kevin Kline in Soapdish, her and James Garner in Murphy's Romance, her and Paul Newman in Absence of Malice---they seemed to be acting in different movies. She and Ron Liebman had something going on in Norma Rae, but then they weren't playing lovers, just friends. I'll bet if I went back to the movies she made during her days as Burt Reynolds' moll there'd be no spark in any of their movies together and she and Reynolds were actually sleeping together.
In Mrs Doubtfire she has two leading men who are supposed to be smitten with her and both of them always seem to be looking past her, as if watching the stage door for the arrival of another actress with whom they'd rather be doing a love scene. In fact, Williams and Pierce Brosnan have a better on screen rapport with each other than either has with Field to the point where Brosnan's character seems to have more of an erotic interest in Mrs Doubtfire than in Field.
I'm not saying there's a homo-erotic subtext. It's just that Brosnan's character reacts to Mrs Doubtfire as if she is a real female presence in the room while he and Field just seem to be running lines.
The lack of connection works in her scenes with Williams when he's not in disguise because she's not in love with him anymore, but when he's on screen as Mrs Doubtfire and she's supposed to be talking to him in the intimate, serious way she had always wished she had been able to with him when they were married, she is still distant, still acting alone, and Williams seems at a loss, as if he's given up any hope of getting a real response from her and can only wait patiently for his turn to speak to come around again.
The chilliness between the two leads would have made dramatic sense if their two characters, Danny and Miranda, were already divorced when the movie started and had been divorced long enough to have become strangers to one another. They should have been divorced. There's no way these two people could have stayed together for the 14 years the movie has them having been together. They act divorced. They both start off the movie making decisions entirely hostile to each other's wishes and interests and it's clear this is not a recent development but a habit of longstanding with both of them. It's a bad marriage that should have ended a lot sooner and both they and the kids are better off. But this is a fact the movie itself only seems to realize later. For a long time it proceeds as if they're going to get back together and we should want them to.
They're being recently divorced is only necessary (Our actually watching them go through the divorce isn't necessary; those scenes are just there to make us feel sorry for Danny, a character it turns out there's no good reason to feel sorry for.) if at one point the script had them reconciling.
There's evidence that it did: the jealousy subplot which has Danny hating Brosnan's Stu as a rival for Miranda's affections rather than for the affection of his kids, which would have made more sense, and the fact (written into the script even if Field doesn't play it so that it works) that Miranda can talk to Mrs Doubtfire in the way she never could with Danny.
But there's no follow-through and a lot that's there argues against they're getting back together as a happy ending. Stu isn't a bad guy and except that Pierce Brosnan doesn't ever seem able to see Sally Field Stu and Miranda are a better suited couple than Danny and Miranda apparently ever were. It's almost flat-out stated that they should have gotten married but Mrianda blew it somehow and her marriage to Danny was a form of self-punishment or a rationalization.
Danny and Miranda can't be reconciled because they never belonged together in the first place. But this idea gets buried because it's a Hollywood movie and it requires a more anti-romantic view of love and marriage than Hollywood can allow itself to present, in comedies at any rate. It requires an understanding that human beings can be perverse, that they can act against their own best interests and even in ways they know will make them unhappy just...because.
In real life, or a novel, or a non-Hollywood movie, Miranda didn't marry the man she loved because she recognized that what she loved about him, his strength, his ambition, his knack for success, would make them rivals. She wouldn't be able to stop herself from competing with him and she was afraid she'd lose the competition. She couldn't bear being the subordinate one in the marriage. So she went out of her way to marry a man she could dominate, professionally, economically, and emotionally, and then came to despise him because he turns out to be exactly what she needed him to be.
Miranda is a control freak who needs to learn to step back. This side of things Mrs Doubtfire actually shows happening, to a degree. But the movie doesn't take her where this change should lead her, which is not back to Danny but back to Stu.
But to have her end the movie with Stu would violate the rules of a Hollywood ending for a comedy. The lead character wouldn't be the one rewarded. Danny is the lead, and so he should be the one who winds up with the girl.
That he doesn't is one of the movie's strengths, actually. The filmmakers couldn't bring themselves to reward him with the girl because they recognized that they weren't making a movie about a guy who deserved to get the girl. Not this girl, at any rate.
Danny is a loser when the movie starts. The script gives him only one attractive virtue. As he says, making a plea to the judge not to take away his custody rights, he's "addicted" to his kids, which of course isn't really a virtue, it's a form of self-indulgence bordering on narcissism. And the script doesn't give us any other reason to root for him except that a guy who loves his kids this much shouldn't be denied their company. There is never a question that the kids should be denied his. Besides forcing Robin Williams to do the thing he does worst---make a play for the audience's love---this sets him up as a character desperately in need of a reformation the movie never puts on screen.
Like Tootsie, I guess, Mrs Doubtfire was designed to be a movie about a guy who becomes a better man by being a woman. But unlike in Tootsie, we never see the guy actively putting into practice any of the lessons he's learned while being a woman.
All of these problems could have been eliminated with the addition of one more character. A girlfriend for Danny.
If Danny had been given his own love interest, reconciliation between Miranda and Danny would have been off the table and we could have rooted instead for Miranda's own reformation to bring her and Stu together. And if Danny had a girlfriend, someone he needs to change for the better for, besides the kids, he'd have had someone on whom he could practice the lessons of his self-improvement. There'd have been someone who could make him see that his over-devotion to his kids isn't healthy, that his way of being a father is keeping him from being a grown-up. And there could have been someone who doesn't need Danny to change his character, just some of his ways. The only way Danny and Miranda can get back together is if both turn into two different people. The writer and director were too smart to try this. Another woman, one with whom Danny was more compatible, but one towards whom he was being irresponsible and careless, would have taken the warp towards one possible Hollywood ending out of the script by giving it a more plausible different one. This theoretical girlfriend's absence by the way is practically palpable and makes me wonder if she existed in an earlier draft of the script. There are scenes structured as if her entrance is imminent and in his scenes away from his family Williams has almost nothing to do and the story stalls.
With a proper Hollywood ending denied us, we're offered schmaltz instead. The movie fakes a happy ending by having Danny driving off into the sunset with his kids, the symbolic wood-paneled station wagon he's driving being the only evidence he's going to do better by them this time and the teary-eyed but hopeful look on Field's face as she watches them go standing in for an actual kiss and embrace and encouraging us to think that maybe there's still a chance for Danny and Miranda as the music soars.
All of this is to say that there's the makings of a more complicated, sophisticated, and realistic comedy underneath Mrs Doubtfire, a comedy I can't help suspecting existed in an earlier draft or at least at the concept stage, the kind of movie that can't often get made in Hollywood, and I shouldn't blame a Hollywood movie for being in the end a Hollywood movie instead of a French film or little independent flim.
What I can blame it for is unnecessary stupidity.
I hate it when in comedies or thrillers the final catastrophe can only come about because the main character makes a stupid decision that he doesn't have to make.
In Mrs Doubtfire, Danny winds up in a situation where he has to be himself and Mrs Doubtfire at the same time and the same place, which we knew had to happen because that's how these things go in the movies. But it shouldn't have had to happen only because Danny feels backed into a corner when it's obvious there are no walls around him to make one.
Danny agrees to go to dinner at a time and a place he's already agreed to be at with someone else for no good reason except that if he's not there the comic catastrophe won't happen. The script says it's because he can't bring himself to disappoint his kids. But at this point his older son and daughter know the truth about Mrs Doubtfire and they can be told why he has to miss this important dinner that's not really important anyway. They can even be enlisted to help him out. More than that, though, by now it's been long established that one of Danny's flaws that made him a less than ideal father and husband was that he could never bring himself to disappoint the kids even when he and Miranda had agreed they needed disappointing, that is, disciplining. There are times when a parent needs to say no and this is one of them. That he doesn't say no is proof that being Mrs Doubtfire has not changed him and that blows the supports out from under the happy ending.
If Danny hasn't changed, he shouldn't be rewarded as if he has.
It wouldn't have been hard to contrive a situation in which Danny had no choice and no out and in which in fact his having changed for the better is part of what forces him into the catastrophe.
Finally, though, I've gotten to something I really did like about the movie. Although Danny hasn't become a better person, that we can tell, he has created one.
Mrs Doubtfire is the most real and most adult character in the movie. All the other characters need her, and I like the way the script contrives to have her continue to exist after Danny's deception has been exposed. And I like that the movie winds up treating her as if she's a separate person from Danny.
Fictional characters can be as real to us and as necessary as actual human beings.
But that's another post.
Editor's final note: This is the third Robin Williams movie the author has reviewed at length in less than a year. The first two were The Big White and Moscow on the Hudson. Editor doubts author believes Williams is that good an actor or that he's starred in a lot of great movies so editor suspects this is a sign author needs to get out more and expand his horizons. Perhaps author should try reviewing more off-beat films, such as those by David Lynch. Author has rebuffed this suggestion on grounds that over at newcritics Dan Leo has already reviewed Lynch's latest, Inland Empire, making anything author has to say on subject redundant.
Editor has also suggested author return to the classics, perhaps write a tribute to a star of the past, such as Grace Kelly, who died twenty-five years ago this past week. Author rejects this suggestion, also on grounds that someone at newcritics has beat him to the punch. Robert Stein has a post on Princess Grace up there now.
Author's note: Mrs Doubtfire and other movies I've reviewed are available from the Mannion at the Movies department at my aStore.
Other night, I'm at the video store, looking to pick up the next disk of Season 2.0 of Battlestar Galactica and maybe a movie for family movie night (Note to the Siren: Thanks for the recommendation. The Crimson Pirate was a family movie night feature last year. Big hit.) and there were two couples in the store, in different aisles, arguing over what movie they were going to watch.
Not discussing. Arguing.
And in both cases the refrain was, "We always watch what you want! Why can't we watch something I pick out for a change?"
And in both cases the person claiming to never get to pick the movie was the woman.
And in both cases the reason she never got to pick was the same. He will only watch action movies.
It was all I could do to keep from going up to both couples and saying, "That's it. End it. Break up now. Your relationship is doomed for a variety of reasons, not least of all because he's a bully or a baby."
I might have added that if he always has to get his way when it comes to choosing the movies, maybe it's because he doesn't get his way in anything else. Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, and genders, and work in mysterious ways their emotional intimidation to perform. But although that's a possibility, it's not the likeliest one.
Run, I wanted to say to the women, run now, and ran far, and run fast.
I also might have added that if your guy has to feel like a GUY all the time and watching action movies makes him feel like a GUY, and if when he doesn't feel like a GUY for even the hour and a half it would take to watch Music and Lyrics he feels he is not being a GUY, he is not a man, and he's going to take his lack of real manliness out on the world in one way or another.
Run, run now.
This of course is a prejudice and it's based on my assumptions of what these two couples define as an action movie.
Bond movies are one thing. Steven Seagal movies are another. In this video store Space Cowboys, Excalibur, The Searchers, Heat, Blade Runner, all the Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, and Lord of the Rings movies are shelved in the Action section, along with Jet Li's oeuvre, Starship Troopers, The Transporter, Total Recall, and Robo-Cop 2, but not the original.
If by action movies, these couples mean movies from the Action section, then it's possible that thanks to the him they never watch anything but great movies, while if her definition of more light-hearted and interesting fare is mush, Nacho Libre, or Saw III, he's saving her and himself from watching drek.
On the other hand he may be forcing her to watch nothing but drek.
But beyond the questions of whose taste trumps whose and the amount of bullying involved and who's actually bullying whom, I was also thinking that if these people don't enjoy the same movies, then they just aren't compatible.
And that's a different prejudice based on something else, the fact that not only do the blonde and I tend to like the same kinds of movies, it was movies that brought us together. I can't remember exactly how and when we started getting friendly, but I know our first long and serious conversation began when we discovered that we both loved an obscure little independent film called Between the Lines.
Things took off when it turned out that our favorite movie was Casablanca.
Naturally, we don't always like all the same movies. Once, when we were dating, I made her cry by revealing I hated Fame. We don't always like or dislike the same movies to the same degree. We don't always want to watch the same movies. She's not going to watch Inland Empire with me when it comes out on DVD next week. (It's generally the case that I want to watch more movies than she does, and I'm willing to try movies she's pretty sure sound boring or dreadful or not a whole lot of fun. Then again, she took the boys to The Simpsons and enjoyed it, while I refused to go.) And I'm sure if we each made a list of our top 25 favorite movies of all time, after Casablanca there'd be a lot of disagreement.
But there's never been a night when we wanted to watch a movie together that we couldn't agree on what movie to go see or what movie to rent or watch on TV.
So when I hear that there are couples who don't like the same movies, ever---or overhear them---I'm baffled.
I can't believe that their couplehood will survive.
But here's the thing.
One of those couples was college-aged. The other, however, was well into middle-age. I don't know if they were married or how long they'd been together, but except for my prejudice about shared taste in movies there was no reason for me to think they weren't married and hadn't been so for a while. They sounded married.
The blonde and I like the same movies. But we do not like the same books. We don't like the same TV shows. We don't like the same foods. We don't like all the same people. We don't have the same feelings about God, the Catholic Church, or religious faith in general. We don't even like each other all the time.
And our apparent compatibility when it comes to choosing and enjoying movies may actually be a sign of something else about us.
We aren't the kind of people who just show up at a movie theater and decide what movie to see based on which one is starting soonest. I don't understand those people at all. And we almost never run out to the video store at the spur of the moment to pickup whatever looks good just to have something to watch that night. When one of us goes, it's usually with a short list of two or three movies we already know we want to see.
It may be that the reason we never argue about what movie to watch is that we learned a long time ago how to avoid those arguments.
It may be that we spend so much time talking about movies we've heard about, read about, or seen in the past, that we've practically unconsciously negotiated and come to an agreement well before we decide to head out the door.
It may be that over time we've shaped each other's tastes.
It may be that our conversations about other things have taught us so much about each other that we don't even think to suggest a movie the other wouldn't like.
And it may be that it's just one of those flukes of personality.
For all I know, movies are the only area of disagreement for both those couples.
For all I know, when they're arguing about movies they are unconsciously coming to terms about a dozen other important matters in their lives, that they are learning about each other's feelings generally, and even though they're disagreeing about what they're going to be doing tonight, they are coming to an agreement about what they're going to be doing over the next couple of years---they're agreeing about how to raise the kids or how to divie up the housework or whether or not they're going to move or buy a new car.
For all I know, arguing over movies is a useful and necessary way for them to blow off steam so that they can discuss those other matters calmly and rationally.
For all I know, arguing over movies might be their form of verbal foreplay and it doesn't matter what movie they finally take home because when they get home they're going to be too busy to watch it.
And for all I know, they might just like arguing.
When you get right down to it, all I know is that if the blonde and I hadn't both seen Between the Lines I'd have probably kept chasing that wan, willowy, sad-eyed brunette and I'll bet you dollars to donuts she wouldn't have appreciated Casablanca at all.
By the way, family movie night this week's going to be The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines.
The whole family enjoyed the first one in the series.
Still not looking forward to the Friday night when The Simpsons Movie is the feature.
Your turn: Lots of points for commenting. What brought you and your significant other together? What do you like that he/she doesn't and vice versa? What movie do you both love? What movie do you both hate? What does she/he like/hate you can't believe he/she likes/hates? What do you like/hate she/he can't believe you like/hate?
Sex is fun.
It’s also funny.
People are comical in bed. This is not something you would know from watching television or movies where sex is always beautiful, when it’s not dangerous or terribly, terribly sad because it’s with the wrong person or the main character is using sex to self-destruct psychologically, spiritually, or even physically.
Get naked, tangle up your limbs in someone else’s, let go of your inhibitions and good sense and pride, and you will make yourself ridiculous.
Be glad if there are no videos of you in the sack.
Taking a break from my Battlestar Galactica addiction and preparing for the third season of Weeds, which begins in a couple of weeks, I’ve been going back through the first season, catching up on episodes I missed by watching them all from the first to the last, and one thing that’s struck me is that along with its main theme, which is how an essentially amoral society functions with a semblance of order and normalcy through inertia, hypocrisy, and regular infusions of money, lots of money, Weeds is also about how sex is just another part of life where people show themselves up as the weak and foolish animals they are.
Even the gorgeous and impossibly, irresistibly adorable Mary-Louise Parker, who can’t do anything, even aim a gun at a man’s crotch, without it being too cute for words, looks ridiculous when she’s got her legs in the air.
The fact that she’s wearing cowboy boots at the moment is a nice touch, because it’s in character, it’s right for the moment, and it adds to how silly she looks.
In an episode I watched last night, one of Parker’s character Nancy’s neighbors, the mother of her son’s best friend, shows up at the door and within minutes winds up in bed with Nancy’s brother-in-law, Andy.
The neighbor is played by Clare Carey who was last seen by me starring as Craig T. Nelson’s too perky, too spunky, and too permed daughter Kelly on Coach. Here she was again, fifteen years older and several thousands of degrees hotter, more proof that women in their late thirties and early forties are the sexiest creatures on the planet, a fact Weeds offers weekly proof of anyway in the persons of Mary-Louise Parker and Elizabeth Perkins, a sad fact of life for men around their age because, unless we are really lucky in the woman we married—lucky being she still enjoys our company and can bear the sight of us naked, and I don’t mean for a good laugh---we can’t enjoy their late blossoming without a messy divorce somewhere in the equation, theirs or our own and the emotional and logistical fallout from one or the other or both, which leaves the field open to younger, handsomer, unattached men sexy and beautiful forty year olds can have, and would rather have, with a snap of their fingers, but nevermind.
The sex scene between Carey and Justin Kirk, who plays Andy, is fairly explicit, without being graphic, and erotic but not at all pretty. There’s no romantic music, no flattering lighting, no over-choreographed dancing between carefully arranged sheets. The camera doesn’t swoop in and out, linger and then slowly scan, finding only the actors’ best features and most attractive curves. The scene is pretty much one straight on long shot of two very naked people doing some rigorous bare-assed fucking.
The comedy in the scene, besides the funny bicycling Carey does with her legs, is that Andy, who thinks of himself as the seducer and therefore the one in control, finds himself being out-fucked by this suddenly very demanding, very vocal, and very physical wild animal of a woman who, it turns out, is a biter.
Not a nipper.
She bites. She chomps down and draws blood.
Andy later jokes that if she were to die in a plane crash he could help identify her remains because he’s got her dental records, but she’s scared him, and turned him off. Of course, for reasons of plot I won’t get into here, he has to keep seeing her and fucking her, and now the joke is that each time we see them in bed again Andy has more flaming red bite marks and bruises on various parts of his skin.
Ultimately his body rebels at the abuse and saves itself by shutting down blood flow to his dick. Much to his chagrin and dismay he can’t get it up for Carey anymore, which, considering what we’ve seen of her, would seem to be an impossible violation of the laws of nature.
But the writers of Weeds know people and understand the ridiculous nature of sex.
Carey’s character, Eileen, is by almost every measure perfect. She’s nice, she’s funny, she looks great in and out of clothes. She’s putting no demands on the commitment-phobic Andy. She’s willing to see him just to sleep with him—or not sleep—as the mood strikes without expecting any promises or demonstrations of serious feelings on his part. She clearly loves sex.
But she’s a biter.
Another man might not care. Andy has tender skin and a big ego and he doesn’t like to be that vulnerable to another person’s whims.
Most TV shows and movies don’t deal with this aspect of sex—incompatibility between two people who like each other.
Usually it’s the case that sexual incompatibility is a sign of the main character’s current and temporary bedmate’s character flaws. In comedies it’s just proof that that character is a loser or a weirdo. In more serious movies, mush and dramas, it’s a sign of spiritual incompatibility. In all other cases it’s a sign of that character’s pathological and dangerous strangeness.
Incompatibility and incompetence—and the two often go together obviously, in that incompetence makes for incompatibility, but it works the other way round too; people who are incompatible in bed will be inept and awkward with each other—are the usual features of most casual sex. The sad truth is that you usually can’t tell whether or not you will like having sex with someone until you are having sex with that someone. Good sex between relative strangers is a lucky accident or a sign that one of the partners is gifted teacher and the other a willing and eager and compliant student. Great sex, however, is a like a pas de deux—or if you’ve been lucky, a pas de trois. If you’ve ever been a happy participant in a pas de quatre or more, I don’t want to know about it.—and it takes practice and requires time. The partners have to know each other’s moves. And then there’s the matter of chemistry. You can’t just put any two good dancers on a stage and expect that they will turn out a performance like Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.
Sometimes, no matter how good they have been with other partners, they can’t find a rhythm and wind up stepping on each other’s toes.
Styles clash too.
Most of my own erotic adventures, and misadventures, as a single guy took place between the time I was a junior in high school and my final year of grad school. This means that most every girl I dated was young and relatively inexperienced and I was young and relatively inexperienced. This had its upside in that being young and inexperienced it was generally the case that neither of us recognized how young and inexperienced the other was, which did not cut down on the awkwardness or the comedy, but did keep us from being disappointed. We were glad for what we got. Well, I was, at any rate. I have only their word for it that they were too.
But the other thing about our being young and inexperienced is that we hadn’t yet developed our personal styles and tastes.
When you’re young and inexperienced you’re often too scared to try things or suggest things or to let certain things happen again, things that you might learn later, through more experience, you really, really, really like.
Maybe I was just lucky and dated only reasonably inhibited girls. But I never found myself in bed with a biter.
Or anyone else whose tastes or style struck me as just too weird.
I’m not saying that nobody ever tried anything that could be described as kinky—or that young and relatively inexperienced lovers might think of as kinky—there just was never a moment when I was suddenly thinking Oh my God, this girl is insane!
Now some of these girls were insane. But their insanity expressed itself emotionally not sexually. Which is how it happens that the most embarrassing and awkward sexual memories from my misspent youth aren’t actually sexual but post or pre-coital.
Some Saturday night when I’m feeling lonely and nostalgic and in the mood for making myself miserable I may write a post about a few of those memories.
As it is I’ve written a long post about how I kind of, sort of, maybe, half-heartedly wish I could write a post about a biter or two in my past.
It’s not exactly a regret, but I often wonder what my romantic life would have been like if the blonde hadn’t trapped...um...if I hadn’t fallen in love with the blonde when we were both so young, if I had lived the life of a single guy until I was into my early 30s, dating actual adult women, as opposed to girls on the brink of adulthood or women who were chronologically adult but hadn’t gotten the hang of being an actual adult yet.
Which is to say that I wonder what it would have been like to have slept with a lot of different adult women.
You’ll notice I’m assuming I would have slept with a lot of women. I know, I know. I also think that if I had stuck with baseball past little league I’d have grown up to be the starting center fielder for the New York Mets—Dykstra played it too shallow—and if I’d joined the Navy I’d be an admiral commanding my own battle group right now.
On the other hand, I’m sure that if I’d gone into politics I would never have gotten elected dog catcher anywhere and if I’d become I doctor my name would have become a synonym for malpractice insurance before I was jailed and the AMA took away my license. So give me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to my judging my own potential.
If certain trends that began in my college and grad school days had continued into my late twenties, I would not have become Sam Malone, but to put it as Archie Goodwin would, I’d have shared breakfast with more than a few beautiful women.
And I’d probably have skipped out on breakfast with a few more, because I’d have met my biters.
And no doubt another few more would have skipped out on breakfast with me, having met in me their idea of a biter.
But, and I don’t know whether or not I’m sad to say it, I’ve got no teeth marks on my skin or on my psyche.
If this was a different kind of blog I’d be asking you right now to tell us about the biter in your past.
What’s the weirdest thing anyone ever did with you that made you want to skip out on breakfast?
But this isn’t that kind of blog.
Regular readers know I hate mush.
Mush, according to the experts—me and every cranky old coot who agrees with me—is any portrayal of romantic love as the be-all and end-all of life, any story in which our one and only rooting interest is presumed to be in whether or not the boy and the girl get together in the end to live happily ever after, with the added assumption that it will be tragic if they don’t.
(Nowdays the boy and the girl don’t have to be male and female. In gay mush there’s always a boy and a girl even if both are the same gender.)
Pride and Prejudice is not mush because it’s very clear from the outset that if Elizabeth and Darcy don’t get together, it will be Darcy’s loss and too bad for Elizabeth, but they’ll both get over it.
The actual importance of their love affair’s success is in its potential to save Elizabeth’s sisters, particularly Jane, from lifetimes of loneliness, misery, and want.
Austen’s romantic leads aren’t an ingenue and a juvenile, they are a heroine and a hero whose heroic act is to fall in love as a way of coming to the rescue of other people.
Their love is restorative. It brings others together. It knits society back together. It brings order. This is why comedies often end in marriages—not for the romantic leads’ sake, but for everybody else’s.
In mush, everybody else exists merely to help the lovers get together—or to keep them apart—and then to be on hand to celebrate the lovers’ union at the end.
In mush, love is selfish and that is its attraction!
The mushiest movie ever made is Titanic in which 1500 people die just so Kate and Leo can smooch. Leo dies just to remind us how vital it was that Kate and Leo smooched.
Given my definition of mush and my loathing of it, you can guess that it's risky for me to read a book, listen to a song, go to the movies, or watch TV, since mush is the subject of most of American pop culture.
You’d be right.
Still, I’m tempted to watch Age of Love, just to find out if it is as appallingly mushy as it appears to be.
Age of Love is yet another “reality” show in which a bunch of women turn themselves into a stable of show ponies up for auction in a competition for the love of a man whose only attraction is that he’s the attraction. Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, Beauty and the Geek, Age of Love sell themselves as advertisements for the idea that Love Conquers All, an idiotically childish notion anyway and a lie.
What’s really being sold is the idea that You’re nobody till somebody loves you.
In Age of Love teams of 40something and 20something women compete for the “love” of a 30 year old man. The show seems aimed to appeal to the vanity of middle-aged women, and men, who need to believe that love indeed conquers all, including the fact that they are by any objective judgment past it. If the the younger man is good and noble and wise, he will choose one of the older women because he will look beyond the superficial beauty of the 20somethings to see the good and noble and loving soul of the truly deserving older woman.
Nevermind that all the 40 year olds in the ads appear to have arrived on the set straight from the gym after a quick stop off at their plastic surgeon’s for some touch-up work and so it’s hard at a glance to tell the 40 year olds from the 25 year olds. Just their age presumably makes them less physically desirable—it does, but in a way I’ll bet nobody on the show ever alludes to. I’ll get to that.
Age of Love, like other reality shows of its ilk, pushes four very unhealthy but too common pop cultural attitudes about love.
One. Romantic love is the be-all and end-all of life, no matter how old you are. Which is to say that a circumstance of being a teenager—when you are unattached, uncommitted, looking to define yourself, and awash in hormonal tides that make thinking about anything but getting lai...ahem...falling in love almost impossible—is the defining fact of life for thirty, forty, fifty, and, presumably, ninety year olds. If you aren’t truly, madly, deeply in love the way you were with your date for the junior prom—or with the person you wished you could have gone to the prom with—your life is a void.
Two. Love freezes time. Being truly, madly, deeply in love can only make you happy ever after if the feeling never fluctuates or changes, if you always feel the way you do right this moment, which can only happen of course if real life never gets in the way, making real life the enemy of love and happiness, something love doesn’t have to adapt to but something love helps you hide from.
The only alternative to believing that true, mad, deep love will last forever and time and reality don’t affect it is to not care that the feeling ends because you can just recreate it by falling in love all over again with somebody else.
In other words, falling in love forever is temporary and the object of your desire, your supposed soulmate, is replaceable. Serial love affairs are the normal progression of a life. Every year you can relive the summer the two of you spent at the beach except that it’s a different two of you every time.
Three. There is such a magical being as your soulmate.
Four, and most destructive of all. Each of us is entitled to the soulmate of our choice.
Age of Love shares the same premise of every other movie teen romance—that no matter what you look like, no matter what annoying personality quirks you’re cursed with, no matter what apparent differences between you and your chosen soulmate there are, in age, class, background, ambitions, lifestyles, religion, politics, personality, you still deserve to be the object of desire’s object of desire just because you are you.
This is just a way of saying that the other person doesn’t matter as a person, only as a reward for your narcissistic opinion of your own worthiness for being loved.
The geek should always win the love of the cheerleader, the freak should always go the spring dance with the captain of the football team, and the 40something should always get her groove back with the 30 year old stud of her choice, no matter if in real life these couples might very well have nothing to say to each other.
In real life, though, things are complicated.
It’s unusual to see a couple in love in which the woman is significantly older than the man, so unusual that people are inclined to look twice and then think it’s somehow...wrong.
But then people are inclined to think other people’s happiness is always somehow wrong.
Now I’m inclined to think that a love affair in which the man is significantly older than the woman is, if not wrong, then suspect. I can’t help thinking that there are money, power, or twisted daddy issues involved and actually running the show.
But people are odd and don’t always conform to type, or to put it on a sampler, you can’t judge books by their covers. A 30 year old and a 50 year old can have more in common than a seemingly perfectly matched pair of 25 year olds.
If 40something men can date 20something women, then why not vice-versa?
Well, I’ve been in a lot of conversations recently—recently being the time since most of the women of my close personal acquaintance hit 40—in which women, hearing that some sister of a certain age has a young lover, have cried out, “You go, girl,” or words to that effect.
But these same women, hearing that a man of a certain age has fallen in love with a sweet young thing, shake their heads in disapproval.
They aren’t being hypocrites. It’s just that in the first case they are being romantic, or vain, or bitter, and in the second they are usually being simply realistic—they know that in real life behind such May-December there’s usually a broken-hearted ex-wife with a lot of bills she’s struggling to pay and kids to steer through troubled adolescences and put through college on her own.
Which is to say that their experience of love and romance includes that fact I mentioned that Age of Love probably goes out of its way to ignore—love between two people is never just a matter of those two people.
The usual outcome of falling truly, madly, deeply in love, as these women know, because they are grown-ups, isn’t happily ever aftering, but marriage, children, mortgages, bills, aging parents, sickness, streaks of bad luck, the ravages of time, and all the heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
It looks to me as though Age of Love is humiliating the 40somethings by putting them in the groveling position of Cinderellas when they are older than Cinderella’s step-mother likely was. The 20somethings are just as humiliated by being expected to act like teenagers when they are all old enough to run for Congress and command nuclear submarines and win Nobel Prizes for Chemistry and drop off their children at kindergarten—in short, to act like girls when they are adults. But we are so used to protracted adolescences, at least in popular entertainment, that a lot of people, including the women themselves, probably don’t notice. The 40somethings, though, I’m sure, notice.
And knowing it and still wanting to go through with the charade they have to be hoping that the 30 year old man whose “love” they are out to win has to be a very unusual sort of young man—one who never wants to start a family of his own.
A 48 year old woman, even if she’s in the last bloom of her youth, in love with a 30 year old man will very soon be a 60 year old woman on the brink of old age with a man still in his prime.
The 30 year old man truly, madly, deeply in love may not think this will ever be a problem, especially if he’s bought into the mush. But the 48 year old who isn’t worried about it is either a fool or so desperately lonely that she is willing to make herself a fool.
I am in no way saying that love and marriage must or inevitably does lead to children. They usually do, but there’s no law—yet—that says they have to. But even when there are no children, there are still other people. Falling truly, madly, deeply in love usually does the very opposite of isolating the couple. Love, all forms of love, connects us to the world, to more and more people.
The premise of Age of Love, like the premise of all mush, is at the end the happy couple will walk hand and hand off into the sunset where time and other people will leave them alone in their love-struck happiness forever.
In a true romance, in the movies or in books or in real life, the happy couple’s last moment alone is the kiss at the altar and from here on out they will always be together in a crowd, two time- and care-worn people looking for each other across roomsful of friends, family, and strangers brought together by the fact of their love, catching each other’s eye instead of hand, and, if they are lucky, sharing a silent laugh at how strangely it's all turned out.
Watched the first two episodes of Huff last night and I’m afraid I’m hooked.
I don’t need this.
A show about an outwardly happy and successful middle-aged man coming apart at the seams? Every week we watch as another stitch in Huff’s life pops and more of his stuffing bursts loose?
And he just sort of stands outside himself and watches it happen?
Here’s a guy with a great job he’s very good at. He has a beautiful, loving, sexy wife who looks great in a blue teddy and even better after she wriggles out of it, a condition she enjoys attaining for his sake and more importantly and more erotically exciting for her own; who misses him when she wakes up in the middle of the night and finds he’s not in bed with her; who worries about him; who puts up with his bizarre mother and the rival demands from his clients for his time and attention; who still manages to be an intelligent, talented, successful person in her own right and have a life apart from being his wife. He has a preciously wise and compassionate teenage son who worries about him and tries to be there to take care of him.
Ok. His mother is nuts. And his beloved younger brother is schizophrenic. And his best friend has a self-destructive streak and apparently thinks that the best thing for him to do about it is try to drag Huff along for the downward ride.
But on the whole Huff has it pretty good.
And then all of a sudden he finds himself isolated within his own life. All at once he’s disconnected from everybody and everything that matters to him. He’s batting away attempts from all sides to continue or re-establish those connections that were there and important just a few minutes ago. Nothing he does gives him any sense of satisfaction or accomplishment. Even doing good, helping people, loving them, feels wrong. Whatever decision he makes, feels like the wrong one, except for decisions not to care anymore.
It’s as if Huff has fallen asleep and is dreaming his own life and as if in a dream Huff has no power to affect or control or even interact with what’s happening to him, only to watch. The scary part, to me, though, is that Huff describes what’s going on in exactly the opposite way.
He says he feels as though he’s just woken up from a long dream and now he’s looking around like Rip Van Winkle not recognizing the world he’s supposedly a part of and the people that are supposed to matter to him.
This is scary to me because I think it happens to people all the time.
There are moments when everybody feels as though it’s happened to them. Whole days can go by when it is in fact happening. But then it stops and things go back to normal.
Except, now and then, for some people, it doesn’t stop.
Something terrible happens to Huff and that seems to be what does it to him. But Hank Azaria, who is great as Huff—the whole cast is terrific—has in the few short scenes that precede the tragedy manages to suggest an already rooted restlessness. Huff’s impatient, brusque, even a bit irritable with the first three clients we see him with. They’re annoying him. They are annoying people, but it’s Huff’s job not to be annoyed with the people who come to him for help; his talents include the ability not to be annoyed longer than most of his colleagues can go without being annoyed. Azaria makes us see that the talent is still there but the discipline is going.
The terrible thing is not just the straw the breaks the camel’s back. It happens because the camel’s legs are already coming out from under him.
What I’m saying is that something big and terrible didn’t have to happen to Huff for him to become a stranger in the strange land that is his own life. He was already wandering and he would have wound up there anyway. And that’s how most of us who get into the same strange country will get there. We’ll just wander in.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You Mr Rosewater a character talks about hearing a click go off inside another man. The click is the sound of whatever demonic engines inside him that drove him to be what he was shutting down.
You're working...next to this man. You've known him twenty years. You're working along and all of sudden you hear this click from him. You turn to look at him. He's stopped working. He's all calmed down. He looks real dumb. He looks real sweet. You look in his eyes and the secrets are gone. He can't even tell you his name right then. He goes back to work, but he'll never be the same. That thing that bothered him so will never click on again. It's dead, it's dead. And that part of that man's life where he had to be a certain crazy way, that's done!
That certain crazy way we all have to be, that’s us, it’s our self and all that self was connected to and cared about.
There’s a hopeful side of this. People who are living bad lives, who are destructive or self-destructive, who are trapped in miseries of their own devising or who have been trapped by others, can suddenly wake up and see their way out. The strange land they wander into is reality or a happier reality than the one they’ve been living in.
But that’s not what happens to Huff and it’s not what I’m afraid of happening to me or to people I know and love.
Which is why I don’t need to become addicted to a show that’s going to have me constantly on the alert, listening for the awful sound of that click.
I may be saved by the fact that Huff was not picked up for a third season. There’s no point in sticking with it through to the end of Season Two, which ends in an emotional cliffhanger for Huff and his wife Beth, if there’s no conclusion to watch.
I might as well give it up right now.
I don't need it. Or anything like it.
But I’m afraid I’m going to be drawn back in.
By the one actress I've always been nuttier about than I'm nutty about her daughter Gwyneth, Blythe Danner, as Huff’s impossible mother.
By Andy Comeau as his brother.
By the wonderful Oliver Platt as Huff’s self-destructive pal Russell, a brilliant but unscrupulous attorney who is as much fun to watch at his worst as he is at his best.
By Paget Brewster as Huff’s wife Beth---by her performance and by the promise of her continued wrigglings out of various colored teddies and lingerie.
Something else I don’t need, as you know, if you read yesterday morning’s post.
David Zinczenko of Men's Health has a column explaining what his magazine's readers are looking for in the women they expect to fall in love with.
Just a guess here, but I'd bet that on a list of the type of men sensible women are on the lookout to avoid falling in love with, high up on that list is Men who subscribe to Men's Health. Not as high up as Men with jailhouse tattoos and Men who count their baseball card collections as among their most prized possessions, but definitely above Men who can't open a jar of tomato sauce and Men who think Britney's hot.
Now I am old, I am old, I wear my trousers rolled, and I haven't fallen in love in a thousand years and I'm not looking to for at least another thousand. The last time I fell truly, madly, deeply in love I was in college and, my memory's a little hazy, either I liked that one so much I never felt a need to repeat the experience or I learned my lesson good and proper. Whichever it was, I'm long out of practice and therefore have no business offering advice to young men setting out to fall in love or laughing at their foolishness as they go about it. I'm sure I was as foolish, I just don't remember exactly in what ways.
I'm fairly certain, though, of a couple of things.
I did not have a list of ideal qualities I was looking for in my potential soulmate.
And I never used or even thought the word soulmate.
There were periods of loneliness and self-pity when I wasn't dating anyone regularly when I might think to myself, "I want someone who will love me for me."
Probably didn't consider that at that moment what I was wishing for was a girl who would be attracted to a whiny, adolescently narcissistic, self-pitying, self-centered loser. Such girls were out there. And generally my instincts told me to steer way clear of them.
Otherwise, I did not keep a list.
I did have a list of ideal physical traits for a woman I wanted to see naked. Back then falling in love was synonymous with having lots of great sex, so to some degree I probably confused what a person looked like with what she was like. According to Zinczenko, a Harris poll shows that only 8 per cent of men consider sex one of the most important aspects of a relationship. I think this is only because most men think of sex as a given. (Boy, are they in for a surprise.) Asking them if sex is important is like asking them if species and a minimum of ex-boyfriends with bad tempers and automatic weapons are important. Goes without saying. I had my list of what I was looking for in a woman whose body I expected to see naked on a regular basis, and it was a very specific list. I fell in love, seriously in love, four times, and not one of those women matched my list or each other. I wish I had a photograph of the four of them lined up so you could see for yourself, but trust me, you would not be able to guess what my type was or what items were on my list, they were all that different in coloring, size, and body shape.
They all had pretty eyes.
Furthermore, if I had a photograph to show you of the four I was in love with along with the ten others I thought I was in love with you'd conclude that my interest in women was purely anthropological, that I was going after them the way lepidoptorists go after butterflies, intent on collecting and cataloging every known species and variety on the planet.
What I conclude from this is that lists are for the birds.
There's no point in having a list because you're going to throw it out the window every time you actually fall in love. More to the point, if you have a list and you try to fill it you will never fall in love. Not with a real person, at any rate. If you aren't continually rejecting people out of hand, you will fall in love with an illusion embodied in a person you think fills the list or who is consciously trying to be like the person you've invented with your list.
Lists are about the listmaker anyway. Your list of what you are looking for in a soulmate is actually a list of things a potential soulmate ought to be warned about when it comes to you.
And so it turns out with the Men's Health List.
Here are the four most important qualities Zinczenko says his readers want in the woman they fall in love with. They want her to be:
1. A woman with a passion in something other than him.
2. A woman with no problem with guy time.
3. A woman with a strut.
4. A woman with good taste in ties.
An intelligent eye will spot immediately, without having to look over Zinczenko's "analysis," that boiled down what Zinczenko's readers are looking for is a hot woman who will leave her man alone except when he wants sex or dinner.
Only the first item is, on the face of it, more about the listee than the list-er. But when you read Zinczenko's copy, you see right away that these men don't really want a woman with a career or a hobby or a cause that they are dedicated to. They just don't want a woman who has time or the interest to bother them with details about that part of their lives they spend together, especially that part of it that requires them to talk about the ways he's been ignoring her. So in fact number one is simply a hypocritical version of number two, and number two is the thesis underlying all four, which is, as I said, that the perfect woman is only around when the guy is horny or hungry.
Number three, the strut, Zinczenko tries his best to define as confidence. But it turns out to be the kind of confidence that comes from being able to make other guys jealous and not the kind that causes her to actually stand up for herself.
And number four is just the age old expectation that the woman will take care of all those little domestic matters that bore the guy and take his time and attention away from himself, shopping, housework, sending out the birthday cards, remembering to call his mother.
Zinczenko tries to sell his list as proof that contrary to some unspecified stereotype young men today are romantics. They want to fall in love and when they fall in love it will be forever, and ever.
What the list shows is that they are tired of dating but want a girlfriend who will be alternately a wife and a one-night stand and in neither case demanding that he make any effort on their behalf.
As I said, the last time I was looking to fall in love I was in college, where, frankly, I had it fairly easy. I was surrounded by lots of nice, pretty girls who were willing to like me not for who I was but for how much fun they would have with me if we went out for pizza and a movie this Friday night, and that was about the extent of their demands on me and mine on them. None of us was looking much past the weekend and most of us were pretty casual about romance because we took it for granted that at some point soon we'd meet and fall in love someone special and that would be it for at least the next few decades
Which is what happened to just about everybody I knew back then.
Consequently I missed out on the joys---and horrors---of dating in your late twenties and early thirties and beyond, and since most of my friends were similarly settled down, I didn't hear many tales first-hand of life among the unattached and lonely. So I don't have any idea of what kind of swinging single I'd have been and I should reserve judgment, I suppose.
But my sons are 11 and 14 now. Neither one is particularly interested in girls yet. The 14 year old tells me he's not ready to date. The 11 year old has a timetable. First date at 16, first serious girlfriend when he's in college. But, he says, you can't make plans beyond that because you don't know where life's going to take you.
So neither one has asked me for any advice about women yet. If they're smart, they never will.
The Men's Health list has me thinking though. If they do ask, what will I advise?
Only one hard and fast rule springs to mind.
Make sure you like her parents and they like you.
But I'm starting a list, just to be ready. I think it's a useful list for men and women, gays or straights.
Things to look for in a person you're thinking you might be falling in love with.
No recent self-inflicted wounds.
No issues with food.
Should like pets, but not unduly.
Should like kids, but not sentimentally or excessively or immediately.
Can get through an entire conversation without mentioning where he/she went to college/high school/Catholic grade school. Double points if she/he went to Harvard.
Refrains from saying, "I don't know what you see in that person/movie/sport/hobby/pizza topping," even though you know he/she's thinking just that.
Should not make a habit of making decisions for you.
Does not have to laugh every time at your favorite joke, but should understand why you think it's funny, even if it's not, and doesn't roll his/her eyes when you tell it for the hundredth time.
Is not best friends with his/her mother.
Is not collecting a toy/comic book/other item he/she loved when he/she was eight; however, if he/she still has toys/comic books/other items he/she loved when he/she was eight this is probably ok, but should be judged on a case by case basis.
Does not mind if you still have and will never part with toys/comic books/other items you loved when you were eight.
Is polite and friendly towards sales clerks, waiters, waitresses, and other people in low-level service jobs even when those people are rude, sullen, and incompetent.
If they have a blog, the blog is not devoted to a celebrity/single politician/single obscure moment in world history/old boyfriend/girlfriend/dead pet.
Should shower/shave/comb hair/brush teeth/change into clean underwear/make bed/do dishes/clean cat box/empty ash trays/throw out pizza boxes daily where applicable and practical, more than twice a week in all other cases.
Never says, Let's get high! with more enthusiasm than he/she says Let's make love! or Let's go to the movies!
Should say Let's go to the movies with enthusiasm. Should not mean Let's go see Saw III.
Does not ever have to say Let's make love! but should seduce you on a regular basis and express enthusiasm when you attempt to seduce him/her.
Will sit with you and hold your hair back without complaint when you are kneeling at the toilet throwing up, even if it's your own fault because you drank or ate too much, especially, however, when you are really sick.
Does not require you to sit with him/her holding his/her hair back when he/she's kneeling at the toilet throwing up from drinking too much more than once or twice a year when you are both under 25, more than once or twice a decade when you are over 30. 25-30 is a gray area and must be evaluated according to circumstances.
Likes you for who you are when you are at your best as well as when you are at your worst, and believe me that's tough for some people.
You like them when they are at their best and at their worst.
That's enough for now. If you've got more, add them in the comments. Let's save the younger generation from the mistakes the Men's Health readers are about to make.
Chris Farley began his run on Saturday Night Live at about the time I was giving up the show. That's a coincidence not a case of cause and effect, but Farley's charm did happen to be lost on me. He always struck me as what at bottom he was---a big, goofy fat kid who had figured out a long time ago that the best way to keep his teachers and the bullies off balance was to keep them laughing and then got addicted to their laughter.
Lots of great comics started out in grade school as the class clown, but over time they learned to discipline their wit and their intelligence and their performances. The difference between clowns and great comics is that clowns just want to get a laugh and they really don't care why you laugh or what you're laughing at, while great comics want to make you laugh on their terms.
Any clown can get a laugh by dropping his pants. Only Bill Cosby can tell the story of Noah that way.
Farley was a great clown.
That's the portrait of him Jay Mohr paints in his book Gasping for Airtime. Mohr loved Farley. Thought he was hilarious.
Mohr doesn't really touch on Farley's demons or mention his death.
A somewhat sadder picture gets drawn in Live From New York.
Chris Rock: Two guys named Chris, hired on the same day, sharing an office, okay? One's a black guy from Bed-Stuy, one's a white guy from Madison, Wisconsin. Now---which one is going to OD?
Farley idolized John Belushi. I don't think he became self-destructive to imitate his idol. I think the impulse to self-destruct was something he thought he had in common with Belushi and he looked to Belushi for a key to how to handle his demons or at least enjoy the fight.
From what I've read, though, it seems to me that Belushi was trying to get on top of something. Belushi wasn't a hero. But I think he was taking whatever it was he was fighting head on and at full strength. Farley was either running from something or chasing it. Either way, I see him as a sadder, more desperate character, more of a victim.
It sounds too like he was the more decent and likeable guy.
I'm mentioning all that to tell you this and explain why I find it so touching.
Seems Farley was dating a girl he really liked and she dumped him. Went off with another guy. Farley was shocked. He'd had no clue. And he was crushed.
But he had his pride.
"Ok," he told a friend, "Maybe she can find somebody better looking than me. And she might find somebody with more money than me. But she'll never find anyone funnier than me!"
Guy she dumped him for?
It's kind of a given that politicians have gigantic egos.
Givens are not always truths.
I don't think it's the case that it's their egos we're talking about when we see someone like Jeanine Pirro, the Republican candidate for Attorney General here in New York, self-destruct in a public display of hubris, anger, vindictiveness, and a complete contempt for the laws that as the one-time Westchester County district attorney she'd sworn to uphold.
I say public but Pirro didn't mean to have an audience of more than one. She goofed when she tried to enlist Bernie Kerik in her plans to spy on her philandering husband. She didn't know that Kerik's own habits of ignoring inconvenient laws had attracted the attention of the Feds who had his phone bugged.
Excerpts from the transcript show Pirro afflicted by a severe case of the It's all about ME's!, which, by the way, I think is understandable for a person whose spouse has been humiliating her with a series of adulteries and, not incidentally, risking her political career through his self-indulgence.
Of course, Pirro isn't an ordinary betrayed wife. She's a public figure with not just an image to maintain but responsibilities, to her party, to her staff, to her constituents, to the State of New York. Her feelings are natural and we can all sympathize with her anger and her pain, but she has a duty to keep a lid on them. It's her job not to let her personal life take control of her public life.
So you could say that in trying to drag Kerik into this---and, although I don't feel the least bit sorry for him, he has enough problems of his his own; she's supposed to be his friend---she let her ego get in the way of her good judgment.
But I think ego's the wrong word.
The right word is vanity.
Ego can be partly defined as one's self-regard, and so can vanity, but that doesn't do justice to either word. Ego isn't self-love as much as it's self-respect. Our ego doesn't just include our sense of who we are, it includes the kind of person we are striving to be. It includes our determination to get there and the discipline to accomplish it. It is that part of us that exercises self-control.
The ego stands a bit aloof, objectively watching our lives unfold, stepping in to hold things together, or put them back together, when the other, weaker parts of our nature explode and tear our psyches apart.
Vanity is that part of us that tells us we are the most important person in the world, the part that is always asking in a demanding whine, What about MY needs?
Ego is that part of us that says that the kind of person we are matters more than what happens to us. Ego is the part that says, This is not worth making a fool of ourselves over.
A strong ego can make a person arrogant, but it never makes them act silly.
Whether you're a politician, a movie star, a business executive, a famous artist, a blogger with a reputation even, being in the public eye, having power over events or just over a few other people's opinions, having celebrity, having too much money or too much access to other people's money, being flattered all the time, being in any way the sun around which other people's planets revolve, this is all warping. It pulls a person's sense of self all out of shape.
Vanity is that part of you that loves the new you, that thinks, You're worth it, babe.
Ego says, No, this is me, and resists all the tugging and pulling by other people.
Politicians ought to have strong egos. What too many of them have is an out of control sense of self-worth. They are vain.
From Pirro to Joe Lieberman to George Bush, and back through time to Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, and on to Aaron Burr and even poor John Adams, the country has had to put up with the outsized Vanity of too many politicians, great and small, while we've lucked out by the appearance of a few politicians with titanic egos---Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt.
All this has not much to do with anything, and although it's her own fault that we know all about it, Pirro's soap operatic private life shouldn't be an issue in the election.
Her willingness to use the influence she has as a public figure to serve her own personal needs, however, is a reason to vote against her.
Still, I am mainly interested in this story as a story and Pirro's character as the basis for a character.
This would be the basis for a good if a little trashy movie or an episode of Law and Order or...
...another short story that I should be writing.
Which reminds me. It's almost time for the next installment of the Lance Mannion Tall Tale of the Month Club. Watch your mailboxes early next week.
Meanwhile, there's still time to get this month's short story, A Penance for Tom Mallory, if you're interested in stories about politicians and their vanities.
Sharpe's pretty but vain and silly young wife Jane has been tempted into leaving France, where Sharpe is busy battling Napoleon's troops, and running off to London with all of Sharpe's money by her new friend, a war widow who has been supporting herself as kept woman since her husband died. The widow has presented the trip as a kind of vacation, an extended shopping spree, meant to teach Sharpe a lesson for breaking a promsie to Jane.
Once back in England, the widow contrives to push Jane into the arms, and then into the bed, of another officer of her acquaintance, a man who is as down on his luck as the widow and needs to find a rich woman to keep him. Together the officer and the widow manage to spend all of Jane's money.
Pretty soon, as happens to all pretty but silly and vain wives who betray their hero husbands, Jane finds herself broke, friendless, alone, full of remorse, and facing the choice between death and a life as a prostitute.
Trapped inside by the rain yesterday, the teenager and I watched a couple episodes of the Sharpe TV series starring Sean Bean, including the one I'm describing here, Sharpe's Revenge.
The TV movies, like the Bernard Cornwell novels they're based on, are gritty but thrilling high-adventure yarns with enough realistic touches and historical details to hide the tale tale and soap opera absurdities at their core. As stories they have more in common with Arthurian romances than with their other nearest model, Alexander Dumas' historical adventures. Which is why it isn't surprising that Cornwell has been working on a series of novels about Camelot when he's not been writing about Sharpe.
Dumas was far more of cynic than Cornwell is and, I think, his cynicism gave him a far more sympathetic insight into human nature. In scenes between his greatest hero, D'Artagnan, and his ostensible villains, Richelieu or his successor, Cardinal Mazarin, you understand why either cardinal is a great man running a whole nation and why D'Artagnan is a nobody, stuck in the lower rank of officers, and not likely to go higher on his own. You also understand why D'Artagnan is still a hero and the Cardinal still a villain.
In any meeting between Sharpe and a historical figure like Wellington, understanding what makes Wellington Wellington depends on the real Wellington's reputation being carried into the novel by the reader.
I've been reading Twenty Years After, Dumas' first sequel to The Three Musketeers, and, while I know I have Terry Pratchett on the brain these days, the first scene between D'Artagnan and Mazarin reminded me so much of encounters between Sam Vimes and the Patrician that I'm convinced that Pratchett is a better student of Dumas than Cornwell. Vimes is a bit smarter than D'Artagnan---and it's to Dumas' credit that he deliberately makes D'Artagnan a little dense---and the Patrician is much more of a benign despot than Mazarin, but in both Dumas and Pratchett you understand why the hero is just a good soldier or a good cop and the tyrant is a great politician.
Cornwell's heroes and villains (except for Obadiah Hakeswill) aren't all good or all bad, but their range of thought is limited and their motivations are fairly simple and confined to the moment, plot-necessitated desires to get from here to there in as straight a line as possible.
I enjoy the novels, even more than Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series (Sorry Tom, sorry Mr Shakes), and the movies are lots of fun, mainly because of Sean Bean, I think, but I don't read the one or watch the other to learn very much about human nature. They don't usually bear reading or watching in that way, while with Dumas and O'Brian you can take your eyes off the duels and the battles, intrigues, plots and counterplots, and look at the characters as people and see people busy being people, being human.
But there's a moment in Sharpe's Revenge...
Jane has just realized the desperate nature of her situation and she pleads with her friend the widow for help and advice. The widow simply laughs at her and suggests that if all else fails Jane can set up shop as high priced whore.
The scene is one of the most true to life in the whole series.
In the movie it's probably all due to the work of the two actresses and the director; I'll have to go back to the book to see if it's there too, although the books and the movies don't always match up scene for scene, plot point for plot point. But what's true to life here is that the widow is not simply being cruel, nor is she, as a similar character in a similar situation in a soap opera or hack romance would be doing, throwing aside her mask and revealing her real evil self.
The widow has in fact been Jane's friend up until that point. She's been Jane's friend only because of Jane's money and she's enjoyed ruining Jane because it makes her feel better about her own life as essentially a prostitute to bring another woman down to her level, but she hasn't known that's what she's been up to. In her mind she has been Jane's friend.
And now that Jane is not worth being friends with anymore she rejects her as if she, the widow, would never have had anything to do with such a weak and foolish and immoral character as Jane.
She has completely forgotten herself.
And Jane, terrified, frantic, begging for help from help from a woman she knows can't help her and wouldn't be likely to help if she could, insulted and outraged at the widow's suggestion that she sell her body to stay alive, has completely forgotten herself too.
In her mind, she is not the runaway wife, and thief, who has spent the last few months sleeping with a man who is not her husband---and, it's implied, having other kinds of sexual adventures on the side---she is the same little girl lost Sharpe rescued and married several episdoes ago.
And the widow, who after she sweeps out of the room in self-righteous triumph, congratulating herself on her own superior virtue and character, is going to throw herself into the bed of the first half-way presentable rich man she finds, is thinking of herself as a respectable middle class woman true to the memory of her war hero husband.
And that's exactly how the actresses play their characters in the scene, as two "good" women, each suddenly discovering that her friend has led her astray.
I think this is true to life because it fits with my own theory that people are guided mainly by their appetites and their vanities and what looks like virtue in them is usually just the luck of their circumstances---they are good because there's no reason for them not to be, and not many temptations either. They have fallen into a moral life the way a twig falls into a stream and they are carried along with the current. When they climb out of that life and find their way into another they usually get themselves into trouble because they have no experience guiding their own behavior.
I also think that most people move from one stream to another and then back without even knowing it. They don't "know" what they are doing, they "know" only what they are telling themselves they are doing.
Quoting myself here:
People feel themselves to be virtuous. They don’t need to be good to believe they are. They just need to sound good to themselves and to their friends and fellow hypocrites. They are very adept at thinking good thoughts about themselves. This is becoming a regular theme of mine. I've used the example several times of adulterers who can, without a twinge from their consciences, sniff scornfully at other people cheating on their spouses. These hypocrites are able to do it without a blush because they have very carefully arranged their thinking about what they are doing in bed with someone they're not married to so that the words adultery, sin, right and wrong, and possibly even sex never cross their minds.
But all kinds of sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves feel morally superior to other sinners, cheats, frauds, hypocrites, and thieves simply because they've managed to talk themselves out of thinking of their own misbehaviors and crimes as what they are. They've carefully selected vocabularies that allow them to talk past what they're actually doing and even describe it in terms that turn it into, if not virtue, then not vice.
Neither Jane nor the widow know themselves for what they are or what they've been. It wasn't the case that either was deluded or psychotic while they were busy in bed with men they weren't married to. It was the case that while they were, they found words to describe to themselves what they were doing in a way that made it feel right. And because the words didn't match their actions, neither the words nor the actions were real to them. They themselves weren't real to themselves. All that was real was their appetites and their vanities. Which is why it's so easy for both of them to drop the old words, forget what they've been, who they've been, and adopt new vocabularies and new selves on the spot.
Scenes of this kind of psychological complexity aren't rarities in the Sharpe novels---the TV movies don't have as much time to explore character---but they aren't high on Cornwell's list of priorities. I don't think they were high on Dumas' list either, he just seems to have been able to work them as a matter of course, possibly because he was writing at a time when readers were more patient and didn't mind lulls in the action and digressions from the main plot, but more likely becauce it was temperamentally congenial to him to work that way.
Still, one of the strengths of the Sharpe novels is that Sharpe is a reflective character. He isn't an intellectual character, so his moments of reflection are often coarse, simplistic, and incoherent. But he is always thinking about what and who he wants to be. The novels chart his moral progress from street rat and thief to officer and gentleman.
Sharpe has decided, half-consciously at first, that he wants to be a certain kind of man, a different kind of man, and he figures out quickly that becoming that man isn't just a matter of changing his circumstances. He isn't an officer and a gentleman just because he gets promoted. (Another of Cornwell's themes is the virtue of egalitarianism, and there are plenty of characters who don't practice it and are therefore quick to remind Sharpe that his rank is just a penny stamp to them.) And he figures out that being a hero isn't the same as being good. He wants to be both.
And this is something Cornwell shares with Dumas and Pratchett, an understanding that character, as the word is used to describe the habits of decency and virtue, is an artificial thing. You have to construct it. You make it up, you make yourself up, and you do it with words. The right words. The exact words. You have to be always telling yourself the truth about yourself.
Which is not at all easy.
Vimes and the Patrician are better men than D'Artagnan and Cardinal Mazarin because they are more honest with themselves. They are better able to describe themselves to themselves. They have set their minds to being specific kinds of men and they work at it partly through constantly comparing what they are to what they want to be.
This is not to say that Pratchett is a better writer than Dumas (not being able to read Dumas in French, I'm not in any position to make that judgment), because Dumas deliberately and expertly shows D'Artagnan and Mazarin failing in the act of self-reflection.
D'Artagnan is just not a sophisticated enough thinker, possibly not a smart enough person, to understand himself in the way Vimes understands himself.
And Mazarin is too vain and too greedy and too afraid and too insecure and too crazy with lust for the Queen to think straight, let alone honestly enough to understand himself.
In his comment on Robin's Last Arrow, Mike Schilling reminded me that by the end of The Man in the Iron Mask Aramis isn't much of a hero anymore. But as it turns out none of the Musketeers, including D'Artagnan, is the hero he once was.
They are all overwhelmed by history and overmatched by the doings of the unheroic but "great" men whose tools and dupes and opponents and obstacles they've more or less accidentally become.
In short, their story is a tragedy.
Bernard Cornwell seems to have completed Sharpe's story. All the Sharpe novels he's turned out since Sharpe's Devil have been set in Sharpe's youth, "before" the series began, or they've been placed in gaps in the timeline of the original set of novels. He's been filling in rather than advancing the story.
Perhaps someday he will get around to writing the story of Sharpe's death and maybe it will be a tragic story. For now though Sharpe's tale is one of triumph.
Nothing had changed despite the banging of guns and clangor of swords, but even that did not matter, for [Sharpe] was full of happiness, and he was at peace, and he was going home. For good and forever, he was going home.
Sharpe wins in the end by becoming what he set out to be, a good man and a hero.
This is fine. Some stories should end happily. It just seems to me that Sharpe gets there through some cheating on Cornwell's part.
Sharpe really isn't smart enough to manage it on his own. It's not simply the case that Cornwell has to make him impossibly lucky. It's that Sharpe doesn't seem to have the intellectual wherewithall to have made the leap from street urchin and thief to an aspiring officer and gentleman.
Cornwell has shown that it's the change in Sharpe's circumstances that begin the change in him, which is true enough in life. But it does seem more a case that the change in his circumstances have allowed his innate superior virtue to shine forth rather than a case of Sharpe deciding to take advantage of the changes.
Which is all just to say that I prefer Dumas the cynic to Cornwell the romantic.
I think Dumas is more true to life.
Years have elapsed, many events have happened, alas! since, in our romance of "The Three Musketeers," we took leave of D'Artagnan at No. 12 Rue des Fossoyeurs. D'Artagnan had not failed in his career, but circumstances had been adverse to him. So long as he was surrounded by his friends he retained his youth and the poetry of his character. He was one of those fine, ingenuous natures which assimilate themselves easily to the dispositions of others. Athos imparted to him his greatness of soul, Porthos his enthusiasm, Aramis his elegance. Had D'Artagnan continued his intimacy with these three men he would have become a superior character. Athos was the first to leave him, in order that he might retire to a little property he had inherited near Blois; Porthos, the second, to marry an attorney's wife; and lastly, Aramis, the third, to take orders and become an abbe. From that day D'Artagnan felt lonely and powerless, without courage to pursue a career in which he could only distinguish himself on condition that each of his three companions should endow him with one of the gifts each had received from Heaven.
Notwithstanding his commission in the musketeers, D'Artagnan felt completely solitary. For a time the delightful remembrance of Madame Bonancieux left on his character a certain poetic tinge, perishable indeed; for like all other recollections in this world, these impressions were, by degrees, effaced. A garrison life is fatal even to the most aristocratic organization; and imperceptibly, D'Artagnan, always in the camp, always on horseback, always in garrison, became (I know not how in the present age one would express it) a typical trooper. His early refinement of character was not only not lost, it grew even greater than ever; but it was now applied to the little, instead of to the great things of life - to the martial condition of the soldier - comprised under the head of a good lodging, a rich table, a congenial hostess.
---from Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas.
New York State Court of Appeals refused to overturn the state's ban on gay marriage.
Shakespeare's Sister is deeply concerned.
I wish the Court had ruled differently, but I'm not as distressed as Shakes.
Nothing the Court said or might have said matters outside of New York. A ruling the other way might have emboldened courts in other states, but it wouldn't have set any precedents or examples they would have felt compelled to follow, especially in the more regressive states.
And a ruling the other way would still have put the issue back in the lap of the legislature, which is where the Court tossed it anyway.
Eliot Spitzer's going to be our next governor. Hillary's running for re-election. The two of them together will have some coattails in the fall.
It would be nice to be there now, though.
"There" being civilization.
After I heard about the ruling I got to thinking deeply on a subject that's concerned me for a long time now.
I'm against it.
Bet that's a load off your mind.
"Look, dear. Lance Mannion's come out against polygamy. That'll put a stop to all this Big Love talk. No chance you're getting that second wife now, sweetie pie, not without a very, very expensive divorce. Ha ha!"
Actually, what I was wondering about is why so many of the Right Wing "defenders" of "traditional" marriage always go right to the polygamy argument.
"If we allow gays to marry, then there's nothing we can't deny. Next thing you know, polygamy will be legal!"
There's a delightful inconsistency here, all these Godbotherers waving their bibles in our faces, shouting, bug-eyed, "It's Adam and Eve! Not Adam and Steve!" Their beloved Scripture approves of polygamy, after all, and bans divorce, which is something their flocks do with the regularity and cheerfuly clear consciences of Hollywood royalty.
But I can follow the line of reasoning. If you are trying to preserve marriage as an exclusively monogamist and heterosexual form of torture then every step away from that model is a step toward the erasure of marriage. First you get rid of the heterosexual part, then out goes the monogamy, and finally you do away with licenses, churches, vows, and matching dishware. And then where are you?
Trailer Park America.
They already live there, or awfully close to the border, and it's not fun.
That's not a joke, actually, and it's not a put down. ("It's not? Sure sounded like one, Lance." "That's because you're assuming I'm as snotty an elitist as you are." "Oh. I see. Thank you for sharing your egalitarianism, Lance. I feel so cleansed now." "What I'm here for.") I think it was Kevin Drum who I first read point this out, but a lot of Right Wing America lives on the frontier between civilization and Trailer Park choas. The reason they are so terrrified by change and the prospect of sexual and personal freedom is that where they come from all those things are aftereffects of social breakdown.
It's why many African-Americans are extremely socially conservative too.
In the more progressive parts of the country, we have managed to preserve our social order. Somebody else can show that this is a result of Liberalism. It's mainly a benefit of prosperity. Somebody else can show that that's a result of Liberalism too.
Still, the leap from being a-skeered of gay marriage to watching for harems to start popping up in the neighborhood is domino theory thinking. Problems don't always line up like dominos though. In fact, they rarely do. Which is a way of saying that even if you ban gay marriages, it won't stop people from arguing that polygamy is acceptable and loads of fun too. Better to ask and answer questions one at a time.
The "problem" presented by gay marriage---is a union between two people of the same sex really that much different between the union of a man and woman that it must be prohibited? How so and why?---is very different from the problem of polygamy.
The problem of polygamy, as I see it, is that it is unfair to the wives.
After all, nobody's talking about a truly polygamous society. When we say polygamy we mean a system where a man gets to be polygamous with as many women as he can afford to support (or convince to support him), all of whom are required to be monogamous with him.
Once upon a time, I got a faraway glimpse of what life in a polygamous household might be like. When the blonde and I were young and carefree, a great many of our evenings were spent playing host to one or the other or both of a couple of our close woman friends. They would arrive at dinner time and stay until bedtime. One of them had a habit of staying until past bedtime and falling asleep on our couch. Then we had to carry her off to the guest room and put her to bed, so she was often there in the mornings, and, if it was the weekend, there until Monday morning.
I'm here to tell you that when you are in a room with two or three attractive and happy young women who like each other and like you, watching them make and serve dinner together---I cooked sometimes, I swear!---you get to thinking that polygamy might not only work but be a very pleasant way to live.
Of course, there was no sexual jealousy in our little menage. And no children. And no shared bills and expenses.
Adding just one of those elements would have thrown the whole arrangement out of alignment.
Plus, I hated it when another guy showed up.
This struck me as terribly selfish of me, but there it was.
What I'm saying is that the central problem of polygamy isn't so much about sex as about preserving harmony. And I think the easiest, and therefore what would be the most usual, method for preserving harmony is male and predominance.
It wouldn't have to work like this. I just think it would. I also think that the only women who would submit themselves to this would be submissive and easily taken advantage of. Just as I think the only men who would want this for themselves---I'm talking about a system where they could have their cake and eat too; not random opportunities for relatively guilt-free sex with different women after having said I do to one of them in a weak moment---would be selfish and domineering.
In short, I think that if marriage is a funadamental support of an ordered society, the kind of society that polygamy would support would be sexist, partriarchal, authoritarian, rigidly hierarchical, and undemocratic in the extreme. Keeping order would require enforcement of the husband's privileges.
Working the dominos backwards, gay marriage raises none of those issues.
Polygamy is antithetical to a democratic society. Gay marriage can be an additional support to a democratic society.
Reasonably, then, the two forms of marriage aren't anything alike at all. Debating them as if one were just an extreme of the other is very much a case of not just comparing apples and oranges but saying they are both kumquats.
So where's the connection?
Oh, we all know what it is.
Gay marriage is like polygamy because they both allow sex that's not limited to one man and one woman.
Talking as if in allowing gay marriages we are opening the door to polygamy and going from bad to worse, reveals a degree of disgust at the thought of other people's sex lives that can only come from spending your time imagining other people's sex lives.
Who does that?
Who wants to?
Ok, I know. Amateur pornography is very popular. But, really, I don't want to know. I don't want to know what my friends are doing in bed---well, there was this one very attractive couple we used to know who...
Sex is wonderful and I'm all for experimentation and generally in favor of whatever floats your boat, but---
Mabye I'm just squeamish, or prudish, or deep in denial, but nothing turns me off so fast as the details of other people's sex lives, even when their details aren't all that different from my own.
Dr B recently had some very lively threads going on sex and sexuality. (Jackmormon of Not Yet Enlightened provides a handy table of contents---with commentary---to Dr B's threads here.) Being a normal heterosexual man and a bit of a voyeur the only one I've looked at is the straight women talking to straight women thread.
There's a lot of intelligent, open, funny, honest, and intriguing talk going on between a lot of smart, vivavious, open, and happily lusty women. But quite a lot of what I read gave me the shivers.
Every other comment had me thinking Thank God I never ran into that when I was single.
I'm not talking about anything kinky or weird or sick either. There was hardly anything I read that wasn't actually quite tame and even sort of cute and tender.
I'm talking about personal preferences in kissing styles, foreplay, what counts as an errogenous zone, expectations, fetishes of the sort that do not require costumes, props, and role playing, needs, desires, fantasies, and just plain likes and dislikes.
But I realized as I read that what was actually turning me off was my own voyeurism. I admit it, I like to watch sometimes, and I've seen some lovely sights, but I don't mean that kind of voyeurism. I mean the spying on your neighbors kind.
This was none of my business.
So I left.
I don't want to know, because I'm not supposed to know. It's none of my business what you do in bed. Or in the kitchen. Or the backyard. Or wherever.
Unless it's in the bathroom on airplanes.
Come on! There are other people waiting out here!
This is probably why I can go weeks, months even, without thinking about other people's sex lives.
Watching characters in movies or TV shows or reading about them doesn't count. You're really thinking about your own sex life then, just picturing yourself as someone else...or your usual partner as someone else.
So I've just never been able to understand the disgust that often wells up in other people when the conversation turns to homosexuality or to any sexual topic.
The ewww! factor.
Leaving aside the normal, natural, and even fun reflexive fantasizing that might be going on, I think for many people that ewww! is a reflexive expression of obligation. They are reacting the way they've been taught they are expected to react. Women are more likely to do this in my experience, since they're often raised to believe "Good girls don't even think about that stuff."
For other people that digusted ewww! is a reflexive translation of a titilated Oh, my! They're not really disgusted at the act being discussed but surprised at their own curiosity and excitement.
I think, though, in order for that ewww! to be heartfelt, you have to be doing more than a little fantasizing. You have to be imagining it in a direct way that I can only describe as voyeuristic.
You have to be spying in your mind on strangers having sex.
You have to have a real, obsessive, and purient interest in what other people are doing.
Gay sex, straight sex, group sex, kinky sex, boring old run of the mill sex, doesn't matter. When we meet someone who is that involved in imagining other people's sex lives that they can react so strongly, either with an ewww or an Oh, my! we think, "Wow, they're screwed up. All kinds of issues there."
When an entire subculture is obsessed, is defining itself by a collective voyeurism, then something truly weird and probably depraved is going on. There are all kinds of issues there.
I'm thinking a whole lot of molestation, abuse, and rape is not getting talked about.
Some people need to set their own house in order before they tell the rest of us how to live in ours.
I can still hear that actor's voice
With its bass notes, or the static
And hiss of records played all afternoon.
They'd arrive in black, metallic cartons,
Their labels faded, Matter for the Blind
Or Library of Congress.
I'd follow each rhapsodic
Twist---Peary tries to find
The path through emptiness,
Crossing polar ice---
Or Huck slips away
From the Widow's fetters,
And the needle would stick---then silence.
I'd flip it over,
Feeling for the center
With practiced fingers,
As the Duke and Dauphin hovered
In blackness all the while,
Suspended in their violence.
Books might last for days,
But I had them to afford
In half-light and dark ascensions,
Listening without moving.
The machine was Government Issue,
A veteran of the New Deal
(The blind began to "read" in that depression---)
It sent off heat like a stove.
I leaned close, clutching a tissue,
And heard the reader's stern appeal:
This book resumes on the next record...
---"Talking Books," from Only Bread, Only Light by Stephen Kuusisto.