Category Archives: marriage

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

“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