Category Archives: sex

“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

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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