Category Archives: life lessons

The Pursuit of Happiness/Georgia On My Mind

Because I live in New Jersey, my idea of a happy life has mostly been to get the hell out and live somewhere less vapid, brutish, and rampantly assaholic.  In fact, we’ve spent five years “interviewing” more likely locations.  (Our current favorites are Savannah during the teaching year and Martha’s Vineyard over the summers).  If only we’d known that modern technology could have saved us all that travel.  Take this ten-question quiz, and the good folks at TIME Magazine will automatically match you up with the state that most suits you.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Remarkably, when we took the test, each of us came up Georgia.  Guess I’d better start developing a taste for mint juleps.

But, look.  I know that happiness doesn’t come at the butt end of a moving van, even if that van is headed away from Jersey.  To quote Confucius by way of Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, that’s where you are.  And, even more to the point:  No matter where I go, when I get there I’ll be retired, displaced, and staring into the face of the pursuit of happiness.

So, after 56 years, what exactly do I know about my own happiness?

My first thought is, not much.  When I look back at my life so far, it seems to me that instead of pursuing happiness, I’ve been content with avoiding unhappiness.  Not to cue the violins, but I’m an abandoned kid.  Inevitably, an abandoned kid grows into an adult who is convinced that he is unlovable, undeserving of happiness, and baffled by the ways that other people seem to slide easily and contentedly through the world.  So, I’ve never had a nose for joy.  Mostly, “joy” for me has been the cold relief of avoiding a constant toxic feeling of wrongness and shame.

But, that’s not really fair.  True, I haven’t spent my life chasing pleasure.  There’ve been no sports cars, five-star restaurants, or beachfront resorts.  I cringe at the idea of getting a massage or other “pampering.”  Heck, I’ve never even tasted coffee or tried a cigarette.  My life has been much smaller:  Holding down a workaday job, being a husband and father, a few hobbies mostly in the homely worlds of folk music and community theater.  Nevertheless, like the great majority of Americans, I would say I’m happy.  I mean, it’s not like I am clueless when asked to choose between Red Lobster and Le Bernardin.  I have some instinct for joy.  So, what is it that makes me happy?

Thoreau, by way of LL Cool J, said:  “Do what you love.”  (Thoreau continued, “Know your own bone,” advice that seems directly related to his famed love for solitude).  That would make a nice motto on some poster with a playful kitten, but really, it’s not very helpful.  “Do what you love” means, happiness is doing things that make you happy.  Sort of begs the question, no?

If pursuing happiness were as easy as “doing what you love,” then we’d all be blissed-out pleasure zombies, rather than thin-lipped, rueful, and rudderless.  Yes, we all have hobbies, interests, diversions, sometimes even passions.  But, despite all those pastimes, we no more know what makes us happy than we know how our cells accomplish mitosis.

Just consider the groaning shelf of “what to do when you retire” books at your local bookstore.  The audience for those books are folks who fear that, without a job to fill our waking hours, we’ll fill them instead with reality television, outlet-mall shopping, and Bud Light swilled from cans.   If people believed that “doing what you love,” whether golf, ballroom dancing, or building model ships in bottles, would actually produce happiness, we’d never see “what to do when you retire” books.

And yet, somehow, we are happy.  We stumble through life, doing what we do rather than “doing what we love.”  And, doing what we do makes us happy.  How does the one lead to the other?  Let’s see.

  • For me, most of my waking hours are spent practicing law.  Most lawyers, and especially trial lawyers like me, hate their jobs.  But, I get real happiness from mine.  I enjoy the problem-solving, the Dutch-uncle schmoozing, the gathering teetering piles of facts and law into a solid structure.   However misguidedly, those parts of being a lawyer make me feel competent, clear-thinking, and effective.  And, that makes me happy.
  • The next largest block of my time is spent being a husband.  My marriage has an unusually strong balance of yin and yang.  Barbara’s awesome strengths are in creating visual beauty, giving love loyally, and intuiting emotional truths.   In the hollow of that womanly curve, she allows me, and confidently expects me, to try to be a good man, which means for example accepting and cherishing her love, being confident, respectful, and reliable, and knowing when to advise and when to hold my peace.  When I can live up to that role, it feels like being forty feet tall.  And, that makes me happy.
  • And yes, I do have hobbies.  They’ve always been creative hobbies:  Writing, teaching, acting, singing, songwriting, and most recently creating a concert series.  I’m an awful actor, mediocre professor, and made a fair botch of my short career as a singer/songwriter.  And yet, creating my classes, writing my songs or articles or reviews, taking a concert series from a little hole in the wall to a pulsing community with thousands of participants, all made me feel creative and engaged.  And, that’s made me feel happy.

I do what I do.  And, at their best, the things I do make me feel competent, creative, and nurturing.  There, I think, is the secret of my future happiness.  Doing what I love is not about playing ultimate Frisbee or reading the classics or learning the piano.  Doing what I love is putting myself in a position to be creative, build community, nurture others, be a good man.  Whether that means teaching at community college, leading walking tours, or volunteering to give advice at small claims court, this has to be the goal.  As long as there are mint juleps waiting.

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November 5, 2013 · 6:32 am

About Happiness

It took eight years and a Wallace Shawn play for me to appreciate Ella, the last woman I dated before I met Barbara.  It turns out that Ella, with Wally’s help, taught me two important lessons:  First, that there is value in seeking out the remarkable rather than making do with the mundane; and, second, that it is essential to happiness for each of us to find our own “remarkable”…which is not always what we expect.

Ella was an icily beautiful and shamelessly mercenary Russian woman who knew exactly what she wanted:  A wealthy man who could make a better life for her and her daughter.  And by better life, she meant a fabulous life.  One night at a restaurant, she asked me to assure her that I wanted the “five-star lifestyle” she craved.  “You know what I hate?,” she lamented. “Cheap men.  Men who want discounts.  Men who use coupons.”  I hastily tossed my Groupon under the table; soon, she followed.

Because, the fact is, I have never wanted a five-star lifestyle (or even a life that could be called a “life style”).  If Barbara would go along with it, I would happily eat at diners, stay in roadside motels, and entertain myself with whatever diversions are available at the discount ticket outlets.  I drive a fourteen-year-old Camry.  I cringe at $100 theater tickets and $40 restaurant plates.

In fact, my cheap manliness has gone deeper than clipping coupons.  For most of my single life, I dated whatever women happened to be available, interested, and more or less suitable.  I approached dating the way most shoppers approach buying a vacuum cleaner:  Of the five models on display, that one looks good enough, and lo, one more shopping chore is done.  Similarly, for almost my entire work life I’ve taken jobs that demand little creativity or emotional investment, and provide no particular satisfaction.  I’ve taken a similar approach to clothes, cars, food, and the other pleasures of life.

So, maybe I am the “cheap man” that Ella despised…or, maybe, there’s some other reason.  As to which, cue Wally Shawn.

A few weeks back, Barbara let me know that she was dying to see Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner,” in its short revival at The Public Theater.  I flinched when I saw that tickets were $90.  What could possibly make 80 minutes of theater worth $90? Isn’t there a movie version on Netflix?  Won’t it soon be produced in some nearby community theater?

Nevertheless, the dutiful husband, after I found that the entire run was sold out I stood in the lobby of the theater for five hours to get wait-list seats.  And, for my troubles, I learned two things.

First, The Designated Mourner was a pretty remarkable experience.  To be crass about it, sometimes 80 minutes of remarkable theater at $90 can be worth more than a whole week of run-of-the-mill entertainment selected from the discount lists.  I’m guessing that the same is true for remarkable music, remarkable bottles of wine, remarkable restaurants, and so on.  This is in keeping with the moral I gleaned from Anthony Bourdain’s latest book, “Medium Raw”:  If need be, go hungry for six days out of the week, and spend all your money on one transcendent dining experience on the seventh.

(Notice any resemblance?)

Perhaps I am late to this life lesson.  I scoffed at Ella’s “five-star lifestyle,” but really, she was saying only that she preferred the remarkable, the memorable, and the precious over the mundane.  And, although Barbara’s day-to-day tastes are more modest, she also has tried to pry into my hard head the message that we must not be cheap men and women when we are presented with the occasional remarkable piece of clothing, remarkable chance to travel, or indeed remarkable friend.

Second, I learned something from Wally Shawn’s character in the play.  Jack is an admitted “lowbrow”…someone “who likes to take the easy way in the cultural sphere – the funny papers, pinups. You know, cheap entertainment.”  He pretends to be a highbrow – “you know, saving the Rembrandt from the burning building rather than the baby” – but finally embraces his true lowbrow tastes (including lavishing attention on a bag of pornography, which he refers to as his “Experiment in Privacy”).  Jack’s quest is to find his own definition of “remarkable.”

In other words, it is one thing to be willing to hold out for what I really want, rather than settling for what is merely easy.  But, it is another thing entirely to recognize what I want in the first place.

Like Jack (who confronts his own Lowbrowness after he leaves his wife and loses all of his friends who “can read John Donne”), and indeed like the Wallace Shawn character in “My Dinner With Andre” (who waxes elegiac about the pleasure of finding that no roaches are swimming in last night’s cup of coffee), I will soon need to ask myself the hard questions about what makes me happy.

Wise people like Barbara have a finely-tuned instinct for happiness:  For her, it’s family, beauty, deeply creative work and a successful rhubarb pie.  But, I’ve never really considered what makes me happy.  Oddly, it’s never been important to me.  I spend hundreds of hours organizing concerts (and, before that, threw myself into community theater and songwriting) :  Does that mean that my happiness is in creating entertainment?  I get an undeniable thrill from bicycling across gorgeous landscapes:  Should I seek out more adventure travel?  And, is my lowbrow enjoyment of diners, motels, reality television, Lee Childs potboilers, folk music, and Rutt’s Hut deep-fried hot dogs real happiness, or just my Cheap Manliness?

Given my current plan to downscale my work life in about four years, it’s time to ponder the Remarkable (no matter how unremarkable), and my own happiness.  I’ll consider this my own Experiment in Privacy.

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September 3, 2013 · 9:26 am

My Old Man

Father’s Day is set appropriately in mid-June, that tail end of Spring lousy with baseball, beer, and boozy screen-porch sentimentality.  Everyone, it seemed, was jostling last month to deliver an encomium to his Dear Old Dad.  I, though, am a wallflower at that orgy.  I have nothing at all to say about the wonders of growing up with a Pop, or even about the sadness of losing one.  My father, y’see, chose to go 1500 miles away and to pretend that I don’t exist.

If you listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant song “My Old Man” or read this week’s Richard Ford essay “The Song Of The Suburbs,” you’ll get the impression that growing up with a father produces a lifetime of stories.  Not true for me.  Because my dad left when I was seven, I have barely a cocktail-party anecdote.

I remember him mostly as a self-invented “character”:  A jocular, impenetrable, and always larger-than-life fellow who cultivated a drily-amused plummy voice, a jazz hipster wardrobe, and an inventory of scripted “bits” that spared him from any sort of authentic connection to other people.  I’m sure that women (and apparently there were several during his marriage to my mom) saw him as charming, dangerous within acceptable limits, and maddeningly aloof.  My impression is that he lived his life as though rules did not apply to him, which (as we know from “Mad Men”) can be irresistible.

There is no way that my parents’ marriage was ever going to last.  She married him for the exact reasons that he was not marriage material:  He was rakish, unpredictable, and spontaneous.  She was ostentatious, self-absorbed, and brittle.  Their marriage must have felt like the closing act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or hell, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor after National Velvet).  For as long as they could live the edgy life, taking daring cross-country drives chasing nonexistent jobs or mingling in the nightclub culture of Batista-era Miami Beach or working as a bandleader at the Borscht-Belt Catskills hotels, there was enough bubbly high octane in their marriage to keep it going.  But, by the time Fidel took power, they had two babies and a suburban apartment in New Jersey.  The party was over.  After a series of false starts, my old man left for good.

There is nothing remarkable about parents getting divorced.  The unusual part of this story is that my father left and never looked back.  He didn’t simply disappear, as fathers sometimes do.  He moved in with and married his girlfriend, left for Oklahoma and, for almost fifty years, has simply chosen not to acknowledge my existence.

I’ve always known my dad’s address and his telephone number, and he’s always known mine.   Perhaps five times in those fifty years, I’ve been in the Oklahoma area and have gone to visit him.  Every time, he’s been studiously polite and thoughtful, the way you’d be if a business associate came calling.  He takes me to dinner, introduces me to his wife’s family, gives me little gifts to take away with me.  And, every time, after he drops me at the airport and promises to stay in touch, he forgets that I ever existed.

I thought of my dad on the day George Carlin died, June 2008.  George’s  on-stage voice, with its carefully-cultivated tone of knowing bemusement (“Why is it that someone going slower than you is an idiot, but someone going faster than you is a maniac?”),  reminded me of my father’s way of talking.   So, after maybe five years of silence, I called him.  I told him my latest news, which produced no reaction at all.  I asked him about his life, which elicited one-word responses.  After a short and awkward call, we hung up and he promised to send me his email address.  He never did.  He has not contacted me in the five years since then.

My old man is 83 next month.  I don’t expect I’ll ever speak to him again.  So, what have I learned from a lifetime of fatherlessness?

It would be too easy to talk about how I never learned how to be a man because I never had a father.  I do suspect that boys watch their dads closely, and adopt or reject their fathers’ values and manner.  So, it’s true that I never watched my Dad avoid a brawl, or copied my Dad’s way of shaking hands, or had anyone to teach me how to tie a Windsor knot.  But, if that is the only effect of fatherlessness, it’s awfully easy to overcome.  We parentless kids know full well that we haven’t learned the ways of the world.  We become as intensely observant as someone who’s lost his sight or hearing.  And, we learn.  It’s not as though I’ve gone through life with my neckties untied.

No, the lasting effect of my fatherlessness is the same as the lasting effect of my motherlessness.  When a parent chooses not to be a parent (or is an alcoholic, or mentally ill), the only way that the child can hold his world together is to excuse the parent and blame himself.  To blame the parent means accepting that the parent can’t be relied on; that the child is completely on his own; and that all that is left is anger and despair.  I found it far easier to believe that my parents were blameless, and that they chose not to parent me because I was so unlovable as to be not worth parenting.

Over a half-century, I’ve learned how to shake hands and tie a Windsor knot.  I’ve mostly gotten over my lifelong conviction that I must be unworthy of love (and of the parentless kid’s constant sense of cluelessness in social situations).  But, most of all, after many decades, I’ve given up on contacting my old man and believing that I can convince him to be my parent.  And that is the most important Father’s Day gift of all.

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July 12, 2013 · 5:14 pm

“Amour”….et Mariage

Sex, sex, sex. FBI cell phones used for “sexting”! Roger Clemens’ tragic 15-year-old mistress, who says Roger had bedroom problems from steroid use! This fabulous infographic, “What We Can Learn From 10,000 Porn Stars”!  (Go ahead.  I’ll wait.)

We are intensely curious about other folks’ sex lives.  This is an odd subject for curiosity: Bedroom hi-jinks are generally so straightforward and pedestrian that midgets, puddings, and random buzzing implements are added to give them some variety.  There’s not much to learn from all of our curiosity.

On the other hand, we rarely are particularly curious about other peoples’ marriages.  While we love to spy into bedrooms, we rarely spy into living rooms.  This is equally odd, because marriage is fascinating.  What could be more complex and mysterious than the ways that two people work out a lifelong companionship?  What could be more esoteric and valuable than an understanding of how couples “make marriage work”?

The first fascinating thing about marriage is how such a thing is possible at all…that is, a conscious and satisfying lifetime connection with another person.  Of course, it is not hard for two people to say some vows and then live their lives as two strangers sharing a blanket.  As Gary Shteyngart’s Dr. Girshkin put it, in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:

Your mother, nu, I picture she’ll be here with me till the end.  We are like one of those many unfortunate corporate mergers they’ve had in the past decade; we are like Yugoslavia.

My touchstone when it comes to the unlikelhood of marriage is the television program “Shipmates,” a reality show produced in 2001-2003 that really should be cited more often by sociologists.  In each episode of “Shipmates,” a single man and a single woman are sent on a three-day-long blind date on a cruise ship.  Typically, the polite veneers of these strangers wear thin quickly as they spend entirely too much time together, burdened by the expectation that they will find chemistry with one another.  This inevitably results in story lines that lie somewhere between Lord of The Flies and Heart of Darkness.  The two ordinarily end up fleeing to opposite ends of the boat, putting on their game faces and dramatically grind-dancing with unwitting other passengers to prove that the failure of the blind date was the other dater’s fault.  Yugoslavia, indeed.

Unhappy marriages are as inevitable and predictable as the weary conflicts on “Shipmates.”  As Billy Joel put it, they are the cold remains of what began with a passionate start.

Successful marriage, on the other hand, is a true mystery.  What makes a marriage work?  There is a book that attempts a methodical description of marriage, Intimate Partners…but that was published in 1986, when couples were still watching Casablanca on Betamax videotape.

Understanding a successful marriage is made even harder by the fact that husbands and wives often spend their first years focused on nest-building.  They get promotions, fix up a house or apartment, raise small children, go to PTA meetings.  emergency rooms, and Home Depots.  They are not unhappily married; their romance is just on unattended auto-pilot.  Divorce often comes when this “Marriage, Incorporated” phase ends.

So, to the Oscar-nominated feature “Amour,” which is on my mind this Academy Awards Sunday.

“Amour” takes place entirely in the Paris apartment of a long-married couple, Georges and Anne, who are in their 80’s.  They are retired music teachers who love the cultural life of Paris.  They go out to recitals and discuss the performance as they make tea in their modest kitchen.  They are too feeble to carry groceries up the stairs to their apartment, and ultimately are too feeble to go out at all.  They have only one another and the daily routines of their shut-in lives.  They do this with patience, kindness, and a tender regard for one another, despite the health problems that make up the narrative of the film.

The producers were smart to title their film “Amour.”  It’s easy to think of love in the Hollywood rom-com way: Fresh-faced and big-spirited couples who meet cute and wisecrack their way into realizing that their concavities and convexities might just fit.  We are satisfied that when Benjamin rides away with Elaine on a bus, she still in her wedding dress, or when Harry and Sally finally kiss at the stroke of New Year’s Day, their story has been fully told.  But, “Amour” asks a bigger question about love: What is it that we call “love” when all that is left of a marriage is the companionship of two lifetime partners, without any of the shared activities, sex, or even conversation, that fill most marriages?  What does it mean to be committed, patient, and supportive when life consists of nothing but the routine of caretaking?

In that very French way, the answer seems to be, there is no question to answer.  There is no question of commitment, patience, or support.  Georges and Anne are married.  They are two parts of a single unit.  They nurture and feed and look out for one another in the same way that a person will look out for himself.  When Anne falls ill, there is no question about whether Georges will continue to care for her, or whether he will honor his promise never to allow her to go back into the hospital.

“Amour,” in this film, is not romance, or nest-building, or “making marriage work,” or even happiness,  It is two people living as if they are one.  If there is any satisfying definition of a true marriage, any window into that most complex and unlikely of miracles, I would say that this is the one.

 

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February 24, 2013 · 8:47 am

Look at me. I am old, but I’m happy.

I turned 55 last week.  That’s old.  Don’t blow smoke up my Depends by denying it.  THIS guy (who rode out Hurricane Sandy above his marine-goods store) is 55.

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So’s this guy.

Steve Buscemi - 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards 2012: Red Carpet Part 1

And, so am I.

It was George Orwell who said that, by age 50, we all have the faces we deserve.  Though, the face, of course, is barely the beginning.  My hair is more grey than black.  My chin is no longer solo.  Thanks to an arthritic knee, my dogged physical challenges (walking the entire 35-mile shoreline of Manhattan, biking across Ireland, running more than 20 yards) are no longer possible.  I know damned well that I am old.  But, here’s the thing.

It’s traditional for we golden-agers, from late-night comics to your uncle Heshie, to complain about aging.  Martin Amis, who is usually less trite in his wit, moans that “time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.”  Nora Ephron made a late-in-life career of writing volumes of Oh-I’m-So-Old humor.  (Admittedly, this one is pretty funny: “We all look good, except for our necks. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck”). Some of us turn ourselves into the butts of those jokes:

Of course, it’s almost as pedestrian for us “active adults” to swear that we embrace our advancing age; as Pat Benatar put it, to “wear the life I’ve lived.”  Mitch Albom’s tedious takeaway, after weeks of interviews with his decripit and dying former professor, was “embrace aging.” Nonsense.  It seems to me that there are some clear-eyed souls who accept aging rather than fighting it; but I’m not convinced that anyone embraces it (except authors in their 30’s who are embracing the craggy aphoristic wisdom of their former sociology professors) or, surely, cherishes it.

I don’t give much truck either to those who laugh off aging with “I can’t remember where my keys are” jokes or those who insist that they look forward to their old age.  Perhaps some people find their aging funny, and perhaps some people are thrilled that they’re old, but I doubt it.

My advancing age is neither funny nor embraceable to me; but it sure is interesting.

55 feels like a watershed age to me.  It feels like the beginning of the next phase of my life. I am, by nature or by lack-of-parental-nurture, a driven person.  I don’t cherish success, but I fear failure, and I fight that fear by being an over-achiever.  My teeth have been clenched and my stomach has been tightened for most of my 55 years.  It’s not for nothing that the dice players call two fives a “hard ten.”

55, though, feels like the start of the Great Unclenching.  Maybe, if I’ve stayed a stride ahead of failure for 55 years, I’m at the point where I can begin to coast a little.  Old age, and especially age 60 and beyond, feels to me like the time when a person can exhale a bit, no longer need to feel constantly productive, no longer need to feel always masterful.  Although 54 felt like middle age, for some reason 55 feels like the beginning of the slow relaxing into old age.

This watershed feeling at age 55 is more than just a coincidence of the base-10 Hindu-Arabic numbering system.  Scientists have determined that 55 is the age when our bodies suddenly stop trying to fight the onset of decay:  Beginning at age 55, we no longer repair our damaged DNA or fight off mutant cells.  Even more evidence of this turning point can be found in David Shields’ lavishly-researched “autobiography of my body,” called “The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.”

Although that book assembles a torrent of facts, I left it with a single unforgettable realization: Like all other species and genera, we humans are reproduction machines.  We are formed so as to create more humans, and we have no biological function beyond that.  Not surprisingly, then, once our bodies pass the prime age for reproduction, they begin to deteriorate.  It is only a quirk of medical science and our own vain love for existence that we live for decades after our biological function has passed.   Our bodies, however, know that the Big Show is over, and methodically begin the decommissioning process.  Not only culturally, but also biologically, we old folks are no longer relevant.

After all, it’s not as if we suddenly age because our bodies are plain worn out, like the balky parts of a jalopy.  There is no mechanical reason for our skin to lose its elasticity, our fingernail growth to slow, and our ability to hear high frequencies to diminish….except that we are examples of planned obsolescence, which kicks in as soon as prime child-producing years are over.

I am only a week into 55, so most of the changes of old age are still before me.  I don’t take any medications; I can walk, see, and hear well; I am no more forgetful and full of repeated anecdotes than I was a decade ago.  So, I am fascinated with what the next decades will bring.

For now, I have two questions, and theoretical answers.

First:  Why aren’t old folks bored silly?

My grandmother spent her last decades watching televised golf and bowling, as well as doing humdrum household tasks in her small Newark apartment and very little else.  Yet, these things satisfied her.  My mother, soon to be 83, can spin an entire day’s heated conversation out of the best way to drive to the drug store.  From my experiences with them, my theory is that we are mercifully programmed such that our bandwidth grows more narrow when our lives grow more simple.  That is, when we have less stimulation, because we have trouble walking, hearing, or carrying out complicated plans, we somehow become satisfied with that reduced stimulation.  (This has always seemed to me to be similar to how younger men and women are attracted to partners of their own ages, when partners of that age had seemed unpalatably ancient only a few years earlier).

Second: Why aren’t old folks continually stoned?

I’m not much of a drinker, but it’s always occurred to me that the “golden years,” with few responsibilities and long stretches of time to fill, would scream out for intoxicants.  After all, another group of people with few responsibilities and little to do — that is, Hollywood stars — seem to inhale drugs and booze during their off hours.  Yet, in my mom’s retirement community, I see nary a glass of Chardonnay.  My theory is that we are mercifully wired in a way that pumps up the dopamine or serotonin or endorphins as our bodies decline.   This may also explain the film “Cocoon.”

So, now I am old.  I’ve done my share of repopulating the species; I’ve gathered the usual Monopoly-game pieces; I get called “sir” more than “dude.” Ah, well. Here’s waiting for the serotonin to kick in.

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Filed under family, life lessons, Uncategorized

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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