Monthly Archives: October 2012

Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life — Lesson 4

So, as they might say in a British bedroom farce:  On to the sex.

I’ll skip over the unanswerable question of why we glory in other completely carnal acts, such as eating – sharing our meals, writing and talking freely about food, and elevating chefs into television stars – but treat sex as a the act that “dare not speak its name.”  (Why violent criminals are simply released after being punished, while only sex offenders are branded for life, sounds like a future blog topic).  So, suffice to say here that this blog post is about sex, and the squeamish should stop reading now.

It is unusual for a man to talk about sex.  Although locker-room talk is full of hubba-hubba what-I’d-do-to-her wink-wink nudge-nudge say-no-more, men never talk candidly about sex.  To us men, “talking about sex” means, at the most, spinning James Bond-like yarns of “what I did to her” conquests, in which we, the conquerors, are faceless, emotionless, and barely present. (Or, in a much more amusing variant, the “I never get any anymore” rant).

It may be that men don’t talk intimately about sex because there’s truly nothing to say.  The stereotype, at least, is that sex is an automatic and uncomplicated act for men, driven blindly by instinct and hormones.  There may therefore be no more to say about a man’s experience of sex than there is to say about a man’s experience of breathing.  I don’t think so.  Maybe that’s true for Stanley Kowalski; but, brother, it’s never been true for me.  For me, at least for most of my adult life, sex has been 90% cerebellum and 10% genetellum (insert if you must a further rhyme for KY petroleum jellum).   It has been anything but unconflicted instinct.

For me, sex has been as far removed from the simple carnal romp as My Dinner With Andre is removed from the Tantalizing Feast scene in the movie “Tom Jones.”  Maybe I’m unusual in this way.  Maybe I am a rare Wally Shawn in a sea of Albert Finneys….but I doubt it.

(At this point, you may want to view the 30-second version of My Dinner With Andre, re-enacted by bunnies.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait).

For even the least neurotic of men, sex is fraught with a weighty set of expectations and anxieties.  Women, we are told at an early age, want a man who is “good in bed” (a standard to which 85% of men believe they measure up, but only 65% of their partners agree).  We are never told, however, what this means.  We, along with Randy Newman, quietly wonder if maybe we’re doing it wrong. (How else to explain the enduring success of that overstuffed Christmas turkey of a book, “How To Please A Woman Every Time,” which consists of two hundred pages of filler and one paragraph describing the author’s recommended gradual-insertion technique?).  We are expected to be masterful lovers by instinct, with the cost of failure being emasculation and a steady hiss of whispers behind our backs.  This dovetails with other male anxieties, from the tawdry and unwinnable quest to have a large-enough penis to the now-medically-reduced fear of impotence.

Early in my aduly life, I found what I thought was a reasonable solution to the “good in bed” question.  In keeping with my nature and with the “sensitive new age guy” palaver of the time, I concluded that a man’s job is to be a pleaser:  To ask nothing and to focus entirely on giving pleasure.

This sounds admirable in the abstract, but has at least two enormous drawbacks.  First, making love to a man who asks for nothing must surely be like kissing your brother through a screen door.  It lacks the ardor that comes from mutual selfishness.  Second, this approach to sex feels more like a military maneuver than a pas de deux:  It isn’t ever heedless, sloppy, or spontaneous.  It is in essence, in the terminology of one quaint sexual fetish, CMNF – clothed male, naked female.  Finally, and most important, having put aside my own desires for so long, I lost touch with exactly what those desires were.

Just as Ruth Reichl doesn’t lick bacon grease off of her fingers, my cerebral and studiedly unselfish approach to sex meant that I had no clue as to what sexual chemistry meant.  I chose partners for their wit, or their mischief, or their mystery….and also with an eye toward whether they resembled the physical ideals that movies and magazines feature…but never for pure chemistry.  This was not a sign of my catholic tastes in women, but rather was a sign of my being completely out of touch with my own moxie.

Other men might share some of this sangfroid with me.  We are all bombarded with mainstream image of sex appeal.  (And, with the advent of the Internet, that mainstream image can be combined at will with images of midgets, goats, or Cuban cigars).  We are easily convinced that we are aroused by Cameron Diaz or Mila Kunis (ok, I don’t know who that is, but every month Esquire tells me that I should).  We lose touch with that part of us that yearns instead for Queen Latifah or Adele.

For me, this disconnect was disconnected even farther by the “love the one you’re with” mandate of dating.  By way of unappetizing metaphor, if you come home every night to a dinner of spinach souffle, it’s only natural to believe that your favorite meal is spinach souffle.

So, here’s my point.  It took me most of my adult life to realize that sex is about chemistry and attraction, and not about accomplishment, performance, and magazine publishers’ ideas of sex appeal.  Not to wax too rhapsodic here, but if I’d been at all mindful of my own hormones decades ago, I would have realized that there was a reason that I yearned to see Nigella Lawson cook knaidlach, or more recently why I paid complete attention to the Mad Men scenes with Christina Hendricks, and none at all to those with January Jones.   I imagine that I am a late bloomer in this regard, and that this is a lesson that induces some amount of quease when delivered by a middle-aged Dad.  But, because I wish every man his own Nigella Lawson, I am delivering it nonetheless.

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 3 (continued)

So, like I was sayin’:

With apologies to Tolstoy, what I learned from my dating years is that there are a thousand ways for love to be wrong, and only one way for it to be right.  Here’s what I learned about both.

First, as to the thousand ways that romance can be wrong.  I’ve been reading recently another WordPress blog , written by a single gal who catalogues the different romantic “relationships that aren’t.”  She describes the guy who “doesn’t want a relationship” but sticks around for the sex ; the guy who acts like a boyfriend but won’t commit;  the gal who allows herself to be taken out on dates but isn’t interested in a romance.  I’m sure that more examples are coming.

Fact is, these are only the tip of that very cold iceberg of false romance.  The book “He’s Just Not That Into You” lists dozens of other ways that men (the topic of that book) hem, haw, tap-dance, dissemble, clam up, and practice passive aggression, benign neglect, and truthiness when they are in romances that are too wrong to commit to but not wrong enough to leave.  Although the tone of that book is breezy and witty, I didn’t smile during the twenty minutes it took me to read it.  It was too depressing to recognize all of my tricks, which were called out by some pop-lit self-help book, and to know therefore that roughly four hundred million other men had pulled those same tricks in their dating lives.

Yes, I had done it all.  I’d done the “sweep her off her feet though you barely know her” trick, just to keep a gal pinned like a specimen butterfly while I decided whether I was interested or not.  I had kept my distance, metered my calls and emails, gaslighted, and tried to maneuver my partners into breaking off with me first.  I was never interested in one-night stands — after all, I fancied myself a gentleman who was looking earnestly for true love — but instead I did something even worse:  I stayed in lukewarm false romances for years at a time, giving well-meaning and earnest women every reason to believe in my love but never actually offering love.

And, I could have continued these masquerades for decades.  Why?  Because the decks are stacked in favor of us guys.   It is, as Bill Clinton would say (and he would know), simple “arithmetic.”  Here’s why.  Assume that what Mehitabel wants is a committed relationship and marriage.  She and Archy meet cute and begin dating.  Shortly, she and Archy are sharing a pillow, and she is writing “Mrs. Archy” over and over on foolscap.  Yet, for at least a year or two, perhaps longer, Archy isn’t expected to decide if Mehitabel will become Mrs. Archy.   Any time he wants, Archy is free to leave the romance, so sorry it didn’t work out, hello I must be going…and no one can criticize him for it.  For some guys, this is a pattern to be repeated just about as often as an oil change or a haircut.  They get the thrill of the chase, the swoon of new romance, the blueberry-muffin phase (“YOU like blueberry muffins?? I Like blueberry muffins, TOO!!!”), and then the easy exit with absolutely no repercussions.

Based on the gob-smacked tone of the above single-gal’s blog, you would think that this pas-de-deux is a matter of complete mystery to women.  This leads me to believe that we genders really don’t know one another too well at all.

Freud, notoriously, considered women to be “a dark continent” and moaned “what does woman want?”  Maybe he was snorting some powdery substance at the time, because I don’t really think it’s all that esoteric.

If you ask me, Sigmund, it’s like this.  Our primitive brains (in men, this is known simply as “the brain”) point us to mates who can produce and raise children.  That translates to women preferring men who are physically strong, tall and fit, and who also have certain character traits that mean Husband And Father Material:  Responsibility, compassion, courage, and a certain James Bondian element of cool mastery (or at least the ability to fix a flat tire).  To a certain extent, it’s still a jungle out there for janes, and women therefore appreciate men who have some Tarzan qualities – they hold fast to their values, believe in family, make plans, honor their promises, can change a fuse, are generous to others, and give some a sense that they know how to give their hearts to someone.

And, as is only right, this brings me back to Barbara, the true romance that taught me the real from the false.

Here, alas, the only lesson I can offer sounds like it could have come from my Aunt Tillie: “When it’s right, it’s right.” My single friends vent to me about the problems with their latest romances: He’s balancing the good in his romance with the bad and trying to decide where the balance tips; she has major misgivings about whether he is the guy for her but wants to give it some time; they are “redefining their relationship.” And, my feeble response is, “when it’s right, you won’t have those questions.” But, it really is that simple. When it’s wrong, a romance is confounding, unsatisfying, and constantly unsettled. When it’s right, a romance is easy, obvious, and firm.

I have no insight into how to find that true romance. I plainly stumbled into mine, fresh from three years of a false romance with a gal I’d expertly kept at arms’ length and an exotic short entanglement with the mendacious Russian. I don’t know whether some stormy relationships, full of conflict and apology, might be true romances. It happens that Barbara and I are by our nature not fighters, so we tend to compromise easily and to approach our disagreements as practical problems that we need to solve as a team.

Really, after all of these 2000 words, the Third Lesson That Changed My Life is the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers insight that unhappy romances are each unhappy in their own way, but happy romances are all alike. It’s just that it took me so many years of not knowing that I was unhappy, of believing that I could somehow alchemize right out of wrong, and of having no idea of what I was missing, that I’m thinking there’s a value in telling the tale.

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life — Lesson 3

It took me fifty years to learn the difference between love and the thousand bad compromises that masquerade as love.   I know, because over the decades I was involved in just about every variety of those sort-of-love relationships.  Usually, I sailed through those romances with my emotional bags pre-packed.  And, almost always, I left my partners half-destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn…well, at least, stunned and mystified at how a romance that seemed to be so solid turned out to have no foundation at all.

But, to me, there was nothing mysterious about it at all.  Here is my confession, and the lessons I learned.

The unusual part of this story is, I was 35 years old when I first went out on a date.  Not that I had been the world’s first Jewish priest, the celibate Father Moishe.  Rather, my romantic life until age 35 had never involved dating.

Back when we hippies roamed the earth, I’d married a gal I met on a commune when I was 16; she was the first girl I’d ever kissed.  And, when that marriage broke up, I fell naturally into a romance with a coworker who was a close friend.  So, when that coworker broke off our engagement a few years later, I was that rarest of creatures:  A 35-year-old man who had never been single, never had dated, never had experienced that odd tarantella by which two strangers somehow become lovers.  No Improvised Explosive Device, left at a crowded roadside market, could have possibly been more dangerous.

On the one hand, I was fascinated by the courtship process.  It was completely new to me.  And, it was more than a little bit scary.  I wanted to do it right, and I went at it the way a general plans a military campaign .  Like some hirsute Carrie Bradshaw, I gathered my single friends around me and we talked endlessly about our searches for love.  I kept a diary.  I was thoroughly insufferable.

On the other hand, and for no fault but my own, I was incapable of accepting love.  My childhood had taught me that the flip side of accepting love is experiencing abandonment and disappointment.  I had become very accustomed to finding love, praise, and support in ways that did not require me to be vulnerable.   When it came to romance, I had become expert in allowing myself to feel loved but holding myself aloof, distancing myself just enough that I would never risk disappointment.  As I said:  Dangerous.

I had a job, hair, teeth, and a house.  Heck, I was a trial lawyer, with all my hair, all my teeth, and a really nice house in a snootily upscale town.  And, I was tall, with a droll sense of humor, and with an inventory of fun ideas for evenings out and weekends away.  I was, as they say in the law, an “attractive nuisance.”

I dated for fifteen years.  Fifteen freaking years.  This was not because I had trouble meeting women.  A man in his late thirties or forties who is willing to date in his own age range will have no trouble finding potential mates.  In fact, those years were sometimes a blur of condominium complexes (“I’m in unit 5E; park only in the spots marked ‘visitors’!”) and cute pet cats.  And, as much for my demographics and availability than for my quick wit and dazzling smile, the passing of fifteen years was not because the women were at all elusive or standoffish.

No.  The reason I dated for fifteen years was that I had not the first clue about what I was looking for.  And, for that reason, like Joe Strummer, I was completely incapable of knowing whether to stay or to go.  I never saw a future with any of the women I dated during these fifteen years.  I never even imagined proposing marriage.  Instead, I was happy just to keep company with them, often for years, ending things only when it became inescapably clear that the romance could not continue.

The end of this story takes place, of course, when love clobbered me over the head like a right cross from Daisy Mae on Sadie Hawkins Day.  I’ve written often about why I fell in love with Barbara; but never about how unexpected and eye-opening it was.

When I met Barbara, I was dating a Russian woman from my town with magazine-model looks and an outspoken and businesslike desire for a wealthy man to care for her.  During one of our dates, she confided in me: “Do you know what I hate?  Cheap men!,” and she asked me whether I was willing to pursue a “five-star lifestyle.”  Yet, despite her gleefully avaricious intentions –and despite how completely modest my tastes really are — I was prepared to keep company with her, hold her at arms’ length, until the conflict between her Robin Leach tastes and my Jack Benny wallet finally boiled over.

Meeting Barbara made one thing clear to me:  There are a thousand ways in which a romance can be wrong, but there is only one way it can be right.  As for all of the ways that a romance can be wrong, and as for the lessons I learned from fifteen years of counting those ways….well, that’s another thousand words, so this post is To Be Continued.

 

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Work, Family, Love, Sex and Surrender: The Five Lessons That Changed My Life; Lesson 2

I was born in 1957, in the Eisenhower age of contented suburban families and pots full of chickens; but it was not until I was in my forties that I discovered the value of family.  Because I had to learn in middle age what most people are able to intuit starting in their earliest childhood, and because I had to stumble my way through most of my life without that knowledge, I think my angle on the value of family is worth exploring.

The streetcorner sociologists say that we Jews, like all Mediterranean societies, hold our families close.  I think immediately of the opening scene of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” where the members of an extended Jewish family crowd around a dinner table and argue whether the Atlantic or the Pacific is the greater ocean.  Every bell curve, though, has its tails; and our family was certainly one of the most non-prehensile of those.  Put simply, our Jewish family were so politely distant from one another that we may as well have been from another tribe altogether.

First, there were very few of us.  My father’s family had nothing more to do with us once my parents were divorced; I never knew them.  My mother’s family had only nine members: my grandmother, her two daughters, and each daughter’s two-child nuclear family. If those nine of us had any aunts, uncles, nieces, or fourth cousins once removed, I never knew any of them, and they certainly were never part of our lives.  Neither did we have any of the sorts of close family friends who drop by of a Sunday morning with a cheese strudel and some mischievous stories to tell.

Second, we behaved (and still behave) like vaguely friendly acquaintances. Other than at holiday gatherings, the only time I remember spending any time with my aunt’s family was the one out-of-the-blue occasion when my uncle took my brother and me to see the Harlem Globetrotters play at Madison Square Garden. I’ll never know what inspired this outing, but the inspiration to spend time with us, to go with us to a movie or to offer to throw a ball around, never struck again. My two cousins, then and now, forged their own very separate lives. They have never demonstrated any desire to be close to me or, indeed, to one another.  In what may very well be a common modern suburban development, we lived our parallel but separate lives and rarely thought of one another.

The notion of a “nuclear” family brings to mind the old foam-balls-and-toothpicks model of the atom, with the nucleus (parents) in the center and the electron (Buffy) and proton (Little Billy) in close orbit.  Of course, the actual distances within an atom are not close:  the distance between an atom’s nucleus and (what we used to think of as) its orbiting particles is in roughly the same ratio as the Sun is to Pluto, multiplied by about 140.  In that sense, my family is indeed “nuclear.”  Even after we four cousins all were done with college and were back in the same area, we family members rarely saw each other, almost never called each other, and by and large left birthdays and holidays uncommemorated.

This is not a commentary on our own separate families.  I came to parenting, at barely age twenty, with no experience of being parented or of being a part of an intact household.  Nevertheless, my children and I wove a family on our own terms, picking our way along that path as we went.  In that sense, I certainly experienced the rich value of being part of a family, as I’m sure my aunt and uncle, brother and cousins, did as well in their separate households.  But, that inevitable bond of parents and children who share one roof is not the “family” that I’m talking about here.

The “family” that I’m talking about here – the loving community of relatives and friends – was unknown to me until years after my own nest was empty.  I discovered it in a country farmhouse in the Brandywine Valley area of Pennsylvania, nigh to Christmas, about a dozen years ago.  I was invited there with the Dublin-born woman I was dating, to spend a snowy holiday dinner with her Irish-born relatives.

My entry into this Irish family was not easy.  My girlfriend was reluctant to tell her Catholic parents back in Dublin that she was dating a Jew.  When, finally, she confessed to her Dad, there was a long silence, followed by the Yoda-like pronouncement, “A Jew, is he?  Fierce intelligent race, they are.”

Just so, when I arrived at this Christmas-season dinner, I saw how very different my tribe was from theirs.  Gathered around a fireplace (!!) groaning with decorations and stockings were a dozen chattering relatives, each teasing the other mercilessly about some silly foible, and each giving back in kind.  Presents were exchanged, one more thoughtful and truly welcomed than the next.  They bantered with delight, the way old friends do when they truly cherish each other’s company.  Well, you get the picture; cue Norman O’Rockwell.

I was in my early 40’s then, and I had never in my life witnessed such a thing.  It was transformative.   For the first time in my life, I wanted that same family connection, that same warm community of others.

I wish that I could say that I was able to carry this life lesson into my own family.  I did try.  I gathered the dates of my relatives’ birthdays and anniversaries, startled to find that no one in the family had such a list.  Although I began to send cards and gifts to family members for birthdays and holidays, no one ever reciprocated (though my aunt continued her kind lifelong practice of sending me a birthday card).  I began to host elaborate family dinners.  These, however, were often tense (at one, I asked for some help to move furniture after the dinner, and my relatives stormed out in anger, demanding an apology afterward); and, once I married Barbara, for some reason we stopped being invited to family dinners (though we continue to invite the whole mischpucha to family gatherings at our house).  As for this generation (me, my brother, my cousins and their families), the long careless telephone droughts can last for months.

Nevertheless, the lesson of that Christmas dinner (and the many big-hearted lessons of family and community that Barbara delivers effortlessly) have changed my life.  No longer the autocrat of my own island, I now am happily surrounded by friends and deeply involved in my own and Barbara’s extended families, as well as the enormous community that I’ve created among the thousands of regular patrons and the dozen volunteer staffers at my concert series.

Tolstoy (whose family life at Yasnaya Polyana was certainly no model) of course said that happy families are all alike; and this lesson shows that is true.  Happy families seem to live for one another’s company, and for the joy of delighting one another, comforting one another, and huddling together in a loving conspiracy of family.  I continue to aspire to live that lesson, for yea as we learn from The Godfather:  ” A man who does not spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

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