36 Things That Did or Did Not Happen While My Partner was Out of Town

  1. Fruit molded in the sink
  2. Four episodes of Mrs. Marple were watched (the good one, with Joan Hickson)
  3. Sometimes, I slept with the lights on.
  4. I woke up every three or so hours thinking I heard a noise.
  5. The cat began sleeping on top of me.
  6. The cat and I invented a new game where a blanket hangs off the couch, which he then hides behind to hunt the string that I walk by with.
  7. I accepted every social invitation.
  8. I got a Dixie Chicks CD out of the library, and it was about all kinds of unpop things: infertility, divorce, parents with Alzheimer’s, and the crappiness of fame.
  9. I also got a Prince CD out of the library, on the cover he is wearing a bandanna, a leather jacket, and a thong.
  10. All these discs got stuck in my car CD player when it decided to pretend it had no discs. NO DISC. NO DISC. NO DISC.
  11. I also checked out a library book that came up as another book called “Swimming,” which I did not check out. But, according to the library computer, I have this invisible book.  They can’t find it on the shelf, and are sure I have it. This CD eating is not going to help my case.
  12. I made an effort to talk to a person every day.
  13. I wrote an episode of Friday Night Lights where Hastings is gay, and Tami has to teach Sex Ed.
  14. I allowed some pretty mediocre BBC into the house. Monday Monday, Inspector Lynley, Waking the Dead.
  15. The vegetables I bought at the market pretty much rotted in the fridge.
  16. I ate cookies for two days of meals.
  17. I bought a teapot.
  18. I carry the teapot around the house with me like a small dog.
  19. I did not want to eat the barley soup I had made too much of. I did not want to make Daikon greens and soft rice with miso.
  20. I got pissed that I have seen all the costume dramas on Netflix instant.
  21. I did not meditate every day.
  22. I did not go visit any museums, or bring my laptop so I could work there.
  23. I did not go on any kind of amusing adventure by myself, unless buying tea at Whole Foods counts, which it doesn’t.
  24. I didn’t remind myself of myself the last time I lived alone, almost 10 years ago.
  25. I had no epiphanies of unfiltered self, except for mess.
  26. I did not buy potholders, plants, or new sneakers.
  27. I dyed my hair practically white. On Skype, a friend’s baby thought I was his grandmother.
  28. I decided blooming peonies look like sushi–either the ginger, or salmon sashimi.
  29. I trashed the apartment in the most boring of ways: clothes on the bathroom floor, mail everywhere, chopped vegetables left on the counter, every drawer open, really no place to land a foot without stepping on some kind of paper.
  30. I did not drink.
  31. I did not have nightmares.
  32. I’m pretty excited about sleeping in the dark again.
  33. My only revelation is that it was not a wild vacation, or a grand reform.
  34. I will still probably clean the house tonight like a teenager expecting their parents home.
  35. Does age  reduce all delights to modge-podging while listening to the dulcet tones of Arrested Development repeats?
  36. I made a list.

Yours,

CF

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Consent Beyond the Bedroom

Dear Millicent,

While navigating the new world of enthusiastic consent, I’m finding a lot of places outside of the bedroom where the same patterns exist. A quick list:

  • If Mr. CF and I are in the car, he always drives
  • If Mr. CF and I are in the grocery store, he pushes the cart
  • Mr. CF handles the majority of our bill paying
  • Mr. CF also purchases and prepares the majority of our food, therefore making the majority of our food decisions
  • I go to bed when Mr. CF is tired
  • When choosing restaurants or meeting places with friends, I usually say “what sounds good to you?” Most of us do, creating widespread exasperation.
  • When a female friend is aggressively particular about what she wants us to do, I am taken aback. When a male friend makes specific plans, I am relieved.
  • I rarely invite friends out, but will often respond to their invitations
  • If somebody requests something, I usually do it, then only later process it and either agree or grumble about it

The first 5 with Mr. CF  have evolved partly from the same long term relationship pattern of assumptive consent that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. Sometimes assumptive consent exists because it is practical. I have worse night-vision, so he always drives at night, and that slowly shifted to him driving whenever we are both in the car.  Since he plans most of the food, he drives the grocery cart because he knows what we need to buy. He’s a grand cook who enjoys making food, and I enjoy eating his cooking more than my own.  He is more meticulous about accounting and cares about it in a way that I don’t, so his taking care of the bills is a win win. We both know that I can drive the car, that I can drive the cart, that I can take care of the bills. But we both also know that I assumptively defer to his choices he assumptively makes (yes, assumptively). These household chores bring up the territory of consent in a long-term relationship that is the opposite of pronouncing desire, kinda. It’s about pronouncing responsibility, and pronouncing that very hard thing that consent protects: balance.

I really love that I don’t have to do these chores. I don’t want to verbally ask to participate in them.  Besides Mr. CF, who really enjoys paying bills? However, the answer here is the hard one. I wish it could just be a case of enthusiastic consent, with the answer being a hearty “no! I don’t want to cook! Please a go ahead!” but, of course it’s not that simple. When I look at all the items of the above list, I get a little frightened. They add up to a big pile of passive.  A person who can’t cook for herself, who doesn’t have a clear sense of when her bills are due, who has luxuriously let go of the some of the reins, is not doing herself (let alone her relationship) a solid.

The detriments of our arrangements are minor, but telling. I don’t know the city as well as Mr. CF because he does more of the driving (as a passenger, I never absorb orientation). My cooking skills have atrophied. When he travels and I am home alone, I am always astounded that I used to feed myself three meals a day on a regular basis when I lived alone, and it was more than turkey sandwiches and Trader Joe salads. We have even got to the point where he, like a 1950s housewife, prepares meals ahead and leaves them in the fridge or freezer with notes on how to reheat. I have a very fuzzy general sense of what we have in the bank, and often guess if it’s okay to use the debit card or not. If I make a big purchase, I will call him first to make sure it’s okay (something he doesn’t like, because we both feel the ridiculous daddy structure of it). In short, I have kind of infantilized myself.  That is, I am half baby, half Don Draper.

Since consent has recently climbed into the spotlight of our marital relations, we’ve talked about all of the above. It’s hard to tackle, because we have made all of these choices for a reason, I take on other chores, and the pattern does work well. I’m noticing I’m resistant because, just like with enthusiastic consent in sex, it means more work for me. I have to do more, and I love lazy. There’s also a lot of effort that doesn’t exactly give rewards: if I cook dinner, it doesn’t taste as good as if he did it and I forget about bills until the day they are due.

So, I have taken on making breakfast. It turns out that oatmeal is basically foolproof, something we both like, and feels like real cooking because I have to boil water first. I also offer to make dinner on days where I have more time, or if there is a recipe I specifically want. I haven’t even looked at recipes in years, but it’s good now because it forces me out to grocery shop, and to re-learn the kitchen. These are both minor things, but they force me to pronounce that I am part of the kitchen, that I can easily cook something I want when I am hungry, and that I want specific things.

Driving has been the most interesting because it hasn’t really changed. When we both get in the car to go somewhere, Mr. CF now asks “do you want to drive?” which is new, but my answer isn’t.  I say no–I really love looking out the window.  The change is he doesn’t ask out of routine, but instead out of genuine inquiry. I could say yes and it wouldn’t be a surprise.  While our actions are the same, they’ve shifted from assumptive decision making to conscious consent.

I’m still working on navigating the bills and on resisting going to bed because he is tired.  A lot of it is about not going on auto-pilot, and again realizing that my auto-pilot captain is quieter and more passive than I ever dreamed. Redefining consent in the bedroom, getting all baboon, announcing the freedom of no assumption or expectation in what comes next (except of course, love and respect) has been about work and liberation.  I imagine it works the same way in the kitchen and checkbook as well.

Am very much still learning, still confused.

I’m interested in how consent works in friendships, too. What passive approaches continue because we don’t want to offend? When nobody says where they want to go to lunch, does anybody end up eating what they want? Are dudes more likely to make the call with female friends? Where there is less intimacy, are we assumptively bound to less consent for the sake of polite interaction?

I’ve been reading the collected works of Miss Manners, who deserves a post of her own. As a great defender of personal boundaries, she often advises against the immense acrobatics of polite society.  Overall, she suggests that saying exactly what you mean is one of the most elegant existences. Pronunciation is key.

More soon,

Yours,

CF

Mastering The Art of Emotional Corseting: Living Rooms and Closed Doors

Dear friend,

After reading your letter about your grandmother, I’ve thought a lot about how “repression” and closed doors have gone out of fashion. Good things open doors, bad things close them (unless God opens a window). In our metaphors, anyway, we’re against keeping the private thing out of the shared space. I think all this is just a little bit wrong. When Julia Child in Julie and Julia (which I watched for the first time tonight) gets the letter from Knopf, she glances at her husband inside, takes several deep whooping breaths and steps out onto the porch for privacy. She actually leaves the house. That scene reminded me of what you said about crying your bathroom or on the street—anywhere but in the living room. Brute emotion, you called it. Whether it’s excitement or grief, does it demand total privacy because, like other completely private things, you can’t really blunt the edges so they don’t hurt or alarm the people around you? (And give them ammo too?)

I thought about this while watching Julie and Julia because Julie keeps having “meltdowns” in front of her husband that result in him calling her a narcissist (which she is—brute emotion is narcissistic) and leaving her. (For a night or two, anyway.) Meanwhile, in total and telling contrast, Julia writes her friend Avis that it’s becoming harder and harder to conceal from her husband how heartbroken she is about leaving Paris. Julia corsets her sad emotions; Julie blogs them.

It reminded me of your idea about how shared lives are half-lives, and how the things that make us tick are also the things that can make us explode. Julie and Julia shows two pretty convincing  happy, well-suited couples.  To the extent that there’s romantic crisis, it’s over how the two Julias’ search for a passionate direction leads us to look at what careerist passion can mean to a domestic relationship (basically, absorption in the work and neglect of the partner). The movie’s challenge—and I’m not sure it bones this particular duck—is figuring out how to make the weird and private “half-life” of well-loved work gel with the other weird and private “half-life” that is a couple’s world. Those two halves don’t always talk to each other, right?

You and I tend, I think, to let the latter half-life trump the first. I bet a lot of women do. Maybe a lot of people do, though in my limited experience (hello dad!) men fall into work-world and ignore the social noise around them better than women. My dad can sit in his open-plan office and ignore anyone coming up the stairs, even if they’re talking directly to him. My mom, to claim time to herself, has to close a door. Even that isn’t enough sometimes. One door in my parents’ house actually has a sign taped to it that says “PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK UNLESS IT IS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH. THANK YOU.”

That door leads to the bathroom. And it has butterflies drawn on it to soften the blow.

There’s a formal desperation to that sign, I think; it exists because otherwise she would give into us all. My dad won’t, because he’s absorbed, so he never has to make the choice. He doesn’t actually realize that we’re there, and it doesn’t occur to him that we might be hurt. And so, by and large, we aren’t.

When work is like yours and mine and gets mainly done from home (and your partner’s does too), it’s that much harder to pick up the work-world because it feels antisocial. It feels—and Julie and Julia deals with the fineness of this line outright—not just absorbed but self-absorbed. It feels selfish and like a rejection of the couple-world, and who wants that?

This is why I think doors are important. Like my dad’s focus which protects him, doors protect us from having to make a choice between the work-world and the couple-world. Thanks to them, or something like them, we can fully occupy one half-life before returning fully to the next, instead of living in the liminal space between the two like one of those optical illusions that are either two faces or a vase but never actually kiss or hold flowers.

(If we could close those doors in our brains instead of relying on architecture, it would be much easier, of course.)

Remember our intense virginal past, full of (sexually frustrated) inspiration and achievement? The thing about being virginal is that (whether you want it or not) you do have a door to close.

I started this letter meaning to talk about grief, not work, and I seem to have lost my way. But I think something similar applies—shared space can almost equal shared everything else, and that’s weird when you’re dealing with an unshared loss. Mr. Carla Fran, in all his wonder, can’t overcome the fact that your grandmother was not his. You have a long past that doesn’t include him, and you will have feelings about it that he can’t feel. Your childhood, your feelings about your mother and grandmother from when you were five… those doors are closed to him, which has to be part of what makes crying in the living room so awkward. One of my dad’s favorite truisms is that when you’re born and you take your first breath, it contains so many atoms that when you die, you’ll have at least one of those atoms with you. When you have to take a breath that comes from an older story than the one you’re in (and what are grandparents but older stories?), the living room—where you do your present living with Mr. Carla Fran—might not be the place to feel an older story dying.

As I write this I wonder: besides the fact that another person doesn’t share your past, could the difficulty also be partly about the room? Parlors and studies and foyers and billiard rooms are conceptually marvelous because they suggest (rightly or wrongly) that there are right rooms for things. The living room, where you couldn’t do your crying, is a special case, partly because it’s in a thirty years’ war against the Family Room for supremacy. (Is it telling that the American family home wants to dedicate one room to Family and another to Living?) When all you have is a Living Room, a shared bedroom, a kitchen and an office, where do you cry? Your solution seems right. At least the bathroom is built to withstand water.

When my grandma died I lived alone, so there was no corseting of the kind you describe, but my living room wasn’t much comfort to me either.  I drifted to a running track that has a big hillside with little trails. I walked up the steepest one and when I was winded (a whole three minutes in), it gave me something to do with the explosive throat-knot. Those old atoms wanted out, but I couldn’t let them out in a Living Room, which suddenly seemed frivolous and dingy and small. How dare sofa cushions exist in a world where my grandmother doesn’t?

Once the big emotion passed and I got myself down the hill and home, I realized I wanted some corseting. Not for me, not exactly. I wanted (here’s a sentence I never thought I’d say or see) to be a corset for my mom. I wrote then that I wanted to be down the hallway and that still seems right. If there’s a hallway, a door’s implied. I worried about her. My mom always holds it together, but this seemed like the exceptional case: she might fall apart utterly. I worried (weirdly) about her dignity. To think of her stripped of it—to think of her, for example, sitting on a trail by a track sobbing—seemed like the worst thing in the world.

Did you have this feeling too? Mothers and grandmothers. Oof. Very hard to imagine them as elemental selves and not our structures.

Corseting is tough, as Julie and Julia acknowledges, with its triumphal last meal in which Julie successfully bones a duck. (Telling, right, that Julia is an excellent duck-boner? She’s very good at keeping her sadness in.) When my grandma died, since I couldn’t be there for my mom (she was in Chile), I drove to my Tia’s house and kept her company on her first night without her sister. I did my best. When I got there her eyes were red from crying. We didn’t cry in front of each other, although I spent most of that night awake and she did too. All in all, I think we were pretty good corsets for each other. Of course, there was a built-in pressure-valve: we weren’t sharing a room. We could keep up the decorous facade up and save the waterworks for bed. That made our corseting easier.

It’s harder to corset if you’re Mr. Carla Fran—both distant (not a direct relative) and living inside the closed door, but I think it can be done. Do you remember the scene in Julie and Julia when Julia Child, who has concealed her devastation at leaving Paris and tried to wave away the fact that her 8 years of work will go unpublished and turned out to be “just something for her to do,”  reads in a letter that her sister Dorothy is pregnant? Paul is standing there when she gets the news, and she breaks down. When she sobs “I’m so happy” into his shirt, he says, “I know.” Good corseting, Paul.

My point, insofar as I have one, is that whatever her reasons were for “repressing” her sadness and reading her letter from Knopf on the porch, Paul’s insufficiency wasn’t one of them. When her corset fails, he’s there. Her reasons have everything to do, I think, with the basic privacy we all need, whatever our sex our age or time—the space for an unfiltered reaction that doesn’t jeopardize the things we most value.

Dear friend, I’ve blathered on about this and that and the other and I haven’t said the really important thing, which is how sorry I am, and how much I wish I could be down the hall from you right now.

Fondly,

Millicent

P.S.–Speaking of hallways, Easter, mothers and Julia Child, I poached my first ever egg.

The Old Worry

Dearest M.,

Yesterday, Mr. CF and I had another run-in with the complications of work and shared space.  I had a moment, very clearly, where I saw why writers are warned off from marrying other writers.  If writing could be this strange little mysterious thing I did that my spouse found charming and a bit admirable while he went off to run his accounting firm or whatnot, it could all seem so lovely.  Of course, in that scenario, I’m sure I would lament “not being understood,” and yackety schmackety.

But instead, I got mad at myself and attacked the dishes in the sink as if they had misbehaved.  They got very clean!  What happened was very mundane.  He has more free time than me, and writes often.  My workload is to the gills at the moment, and my output has been sludge.  I put time aside over the weekend, and then quickly chucked it because of an invitation to do something fun.  The invitation got canceled, and I felt like a schlump for putting my work aside so quickly, and then begrudgingly watching the weekend inch away.  Meanwhile, Mr. CF was finishing another draft.

So, I jerkily got mad at him for doing well what I am doing poorly.

The reason I bring this up is because I was reading about a study the MLA did tracking women’s careers in the humanities.  It takes women one to three-and-a half years longer to be promoted from associate to full professor than men, and it’s not because of child bearing/rearing  issues (the conclusion that I immediately jumped to before finishing the article).  Apparently academic mothers often exceed expectations.  Weirdly, if you’re married, it does affect your career (usually taking 2 years longer to reach promotion than male counterparts).

One insight the study had was that on average female faculty spend more time on their teaching (grading, in-class instruction), while male faculty spend more time on writing and research.  As great teaching is very often only rewarded with a plaque and lots of requests for letters of recommendation, it doesn’t have the same oomph at promotion time as sexy research.

Now I will make a huge over-generalization, and compare this study to marriage in a way that would make Aristotle shudder.    This is not a new idea, more of a repeat.  Are women faculty more inclined to perform to external expectations first, and then fit their own work in?  A classroom of students ready to judge your performance is a mighty audience, and one that can easily trump any voice that says to put them on the backburner.  Is the inherent argument or frustration that crops up between me and Mr. CF the fact that he performs for his own interests (creativity, etc.) first, while I perform to other’s expectations first?  Meaning, I need to say “suck it” more often?

This is interesting to me because it seems that some could interpret this study as support for the fact that women are more inclined to nurture and support students.  Instead, at least in my case, it reads more of either a more direct connection to present communities, or a bold streak of insecurity that is afraid of being thought less of, and so on.

Do you think there will be a Susan Boyle backlash?  She seems able to transcend any of that kind of nipping.  I like thinking of her voice as a giant shield that makes her instantly into a golden turtle.

Happy Sunday dahling,

Yours,

CF