A Delicate Balance

I agree, Gaudy Night devastates.  And my answer to all of your fine thoughts is only the sentiment “indeed.”

I recently taught Gaudy Night as part of a course on the detective genre, and the class consensus was that the book was also nodding to the hardboiled theme of personal mystery trumping external mystery as a plot point.  Harriet’s puzzling is as much an internal event as an external one, and the true mystery she solves at the end is her comfort in her own skin.  Of course, in the hardboiled stuff, the detectives are comfortable in their skin, it’s just that their skin isn’t comfortable in their world.

I think what negates Pomfret as a possible happier ending for Harriet isn’t his sweetness or lack of consumed interest in the life of the brain, but his weakness.  She defends him, and he can’t stand that as a senior member of the college, she has more rep than he does.  He is embarrassed (I guess this is also due to the years she has on him), and becomes quite unattractive.  Almost a Mr. Collins done up in Mr. Bingsley’s clothes (if one were to make unnecessary comparisons)?

But,  match up an independent woman with a brain of gold and one sweet warrior with the heart and sword of gold, and you have a sticking point for entertainment.   I first swooned over the formula in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (time travel, Scotland, True Love, le sigh), and have recently become ridiculously enamored again with the show Bones.  Here we have a leading lady that is completely encompassed by the life of the mind.  She is the expert in her field, and completely independent.  She has no yearnings for marriage or children, and is most happy when researching.  She is almost a young version of Miss de Vine from Gaudy Night. Then enter her FBI partner, who is broad shouldered, an ace shot, and has good people skills.  He is also a devout Catholic, sympathetic single father, and a recovering gambling addict.  Together, they are brains and body, solving crimes one goopy skeleton at a time.  And, they are smokingly hot together (okay, they also both have the luck of being smokingly hot apart, but yowsa, can they glower).  The show has fallen into the Who’s the Boss/Moonlighting flu of overly amping the sexual tension to the show’s possible collapse. BUT, we know that they would be the best together, and if they did indeed kiss and put the guns down to start a thang, the world might be a better place for both of them.  I think I would blush at my television if they kissed.  Luckily,  they are kept in check by their duties of friendship, work, and respect for an ordered world where some things are simply not thrown to the winds of hormones.  The balance is, at times, exquisite.   It is Harriet Vane’s dreamscape: where Peter isn’t an aristocratic fop, and strongly compliments her world (with muscles and pie) without horning in on it.

Which brings me back to the ducks, and the reckoning that ends Gaudy Night.  I’m thinking of Peter and Harriet when they are looking at the spires, having their come-to-Jesus talk very much in the manner of Elizabeth and Darcy (this novel does smack Austen, or is it just because it is a novel of manners?).  Peter says two things that I very much like, and also wonder if they are as organic to the plot as Sayers suggests. The first is:

I do know that the worst sin–perhaps the only sin–passion can commit, is to be joyless.  It must lie down with laughter or make its bed in hell–there is no middle way

And then,

If you have found your own value, that is immeasurably the greatest thing

I find this to be a great compliment to Harriet, not because he is saying that she needs to build up her self-esteem, or that she has been to her ownself true, but that she has gotten through a gauntlet of adulthood: that she is a kind of gold he could never describe to her, and for her to understand the fine stuff, she would have to see it for herself.  And also, his understanding that the mind or the body can be chosen at the loss of the other, but joy must be part of the equation.  Every time I look at this quote, I get a bit of vertigo: it rings both trite and profound.  At the moment, I can almost see around it.

And then, there is Miss De Vine’s stern warning to Harriet as they discuss the prospect of Peter:

“He will never do that.  That’s his weakness.  He’ll never make up your mind for you. You’ll have to make your own decisions.  You needn’t be afraid of losing your independence; he will always force it back on you. If you ever find any kind of repose with him, it can only be the repose of very delicate balance.”

“That’s what he says himself.  If you were me, should you like to marry a man like that?”

“Frankly,” said Miss de Vine, “I should not. I would not do it for any consideration.  A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity.  You can hurt one another so dreadfully.”

So, the price of perfection, the dream boy that does not threaten one’s sense of selfhood, is possible destruction?

And this is why it is a novel, and Bones is a television show, and Austen made Darcy, and why the whole world of women swoons at the mention of Colin Firth.  The clarity of balance can only be a plot construction, an epic battle, or a quietly shrewd Alice Munro ending.

There is an ache here, and I’m not sure if it is for the pleasures of good fiction, or its friction with daily living.

The Peters and Darcys and Sealys (Bones), are they the female version of Pamela Andersen and Tina Fey, or other male icons of ideal ladyness?

Yours,

CF

The Massive Continuity of Ducks

Dearest CF,

I enthusiastically second your nomination of Harriet Vane for Odd Saint, maybe the oddest of them all. This morning I’ve been thinking about Rereadings—that delicious readerly indulgence that Anne Fadiman explores in her book of the same name—and about the particular pleasures of rereading Gaudy Night.

Why does it  reward revisitings so richly?  For one thing, Harriet Vane is an older, wiser, more contemporary and (dare I say it?) more interesting Elizabeth Bennet. Like you say, she’s prone to mistakes, lapses in control, the “strange organic disruptions that thwart!”

But she’s not the only one given to those organic disruptions–Sayers is too. The novel is full of ’em and they’re the greatest pleasures of the book. I’m thinking of those tiny reflective moments, those gems like the ones you mention that have nothing to do with plot. They feel like the equivalent of digressions in an Old English poem—sections that could be swapped around and added in depending on the audience.

Since there’s no bard making those decisions for us, we make them ourselves. The book hasn’t changed but we, the audience, have. This is one of many misunderstandings we have when we’re young, I guess: I thought I was underlining the book when I was actually underlining me.

Glancing through my grimy dog-eared copy of GN, I still find many of the same passages compelling.  Sometimes I remember the flash of blue lightning that made me underline the first time. Other times the older self greedily usurps the passage for its own uses.

I first read the book in a defiant and exhilarated mood. It came to me recommended by the only real “flame” I’ve ever had, the one whose back distracted me during exams and whose neck forced me to kiss it.  This was one of his favorite books. I know, therefore, that in underlining the following passage at the time, I was pointedly comparing someone unfavorably to him:

There was a refreshing lack of complication about Reggie Pomfret. He knew nothing about literary jealousies; he had no views about the comparative importance of personal and professional loyalties; he laughed heartily at obvious jokes; he did not expose your nerve-centers or his own; he did not use words with double-meanings; he did not challenge you to attack him and then suddenly roll himself into an armadillo-like ball, presenting a smooth, defensive surface of ironical quotations; he had no overtones of any kind; he was a good-natured, not very clever, young man, eager to give pleasure to someone who had shown him a kindness. Harriet found him quite extraordinarily restful.

Tragically, I no longer know who my Pomfret was. These days someone quite different comes to mind when I read this, and I find myself heretically wondering whether Harriet might not have been happier with Reggie than with Peter.

Not really, of course. Fiction transcends even our own immensely fascinating biographies. If Harriet’s a more complicated (or at any rate more modern) Ms. Bennet, Peter’s a vastly more interesting Mr. Darcy and there’s narrative justice in their ending up together.

And yet it’s in the ending that a worry niggles. If this is ultimately an effort to marry the detective story and the Shakespearean comedy–formulaic genres dealing in intellect and love–what is the argument that makes this all work?

The concerns about such a marriage are, after all, real. I can’t say it better than you did:  “That grapple with work and domesticity and power (Hrothgar’s dilemma) is what’s on the table here, and dear Harriet can see all the swords as they hang on the wall.”

Harriet’s worries are legitimate!! Recently Family Guy had a bit (not exactly an organic disruption, but definitely a digression) where a Career Woman runs around town arranging important meetings and therefore feeling stressed. She meets a man who says “Don’t worry, all your problems will be fixed by my penis.”

Now, obviously GN isn’t merely a rom-com–in the Shakespearean or the modern sense–or merely a detective story, where social order is restored in the end. And yet the solution, as much as it tries to answer all the questions plaguing the protagonists, seems oddly pat. Are we safe accepting its answers to the problems of marriage? I wonder what you’d think of the short stories where Harriet and Peter have children.

I stumbled across the following passage (heavily underlined in black ink):

Could there ever be any alliance between the intellect and the flesh? It was this business of asking questions and analyzing everything that sterilized and stultified all one’s passions. Experience perhaps had a formula to get over this difficulty: one kept the bitter, tormenting brain on one side of the wall and the languorous sweet body on the other, and never let them meet.

Bemusedly mourning that I no longer underline my copy of Gaudy Night, I’d secretly labeled it a time capsule of my younger, naive, questing self.  Nice to see one’s own trajectory, watch the urgency of once-terrible questions dissolve. Then I read this and was reduced to my core puddle of doubt. This very weekend I banished the languorous sweet body to let the bitter tormenting brain do its work. It has stopped occurring to me that such a collaboration is possible.

Does this problem ever go away?

While Harriet and Peter are enjoying a moment free of power struggles on the banks of the river, Peter says, “How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks. ”

So. What is our problem finally? A passion, or a duck?

Fondly,

Millicent

(Carla Fran’s response, “A Delicate Balance,” is here. For more Gaudy Night or Harriet Vane-related musings, see “The Body and the Mind” and “Odd Saint: Harriet Vane.”)

Oversharing

Dear CF ,

I’m incensed by the word “overshare,” so I only glanced at the Jezebel piece, which seemed concerned more with the graphic and anatomical variety of the phenomenon than with the stripping bare of a life. I’m firmly in favor of the former—felt, in fact, that Sadie’s approach to the subject was quite like our own. The blood-and-guts guffaws are right, so much so that I fail to see why this is even a point of interest. Men, God bless ’em, have been talking frankly and jovially about their members for a long time. Take Erasmus cackling about penii in The Praise of Folly:

Let me ask you if the head or the face or the breast or the hands or the ear, all of which are reputed the more seemly parts of the body, actually beget either gods or men? Not as I see it; it’s that other part, so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker, that propagates the human race. That is the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence….

I guess I have a more anxious relationship to the other kind of Oversharing. Just now, searching for the original Salon article, I came across an October 18, 2008 article about this very issue which said the term was coined by ex-Gawker writer Emily Gould. Suddenly my case of the cranks made perfect sense.

In the spirit of camaraderie I’m taking a deep breath and a moment to overshare my thoughts on the occasion of Ms. Gould’s retirement. The following is a direct transcript of my Notes to Self on the date she quit the old-school Gawker. It’s fitting, p’raps, that she quit with an overly personal (perhaps overly dramatic, but nonetheless interesting) final post.

Ahem:

Came back from a party at R’s house feeling twinges of regret, as I always do. What sort of honesty is appropriate at these sorts of gatherings? I feel I always choose the wrong one. Small breakthroughs: wrote the piece defending sloth. But really an invitation to consider a spiritual crisis as represented by Sloth, the Capital Sin, as described by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. The fact of the sigh we give when we are deprived of spiritual truths. The inability/struggle of the mind to produce “good.”

The big question in writing, as at parties, is who to sacrifice to the audience.

Is the Gawker phenomenon so explosive because it’s the cocaine  of blogging? Everything is sacrificed for the sake of the reader’s microsecond of thrills. Mothers, siblings, lovers. The columnists willingly burn the bridges of what they’ve been and will be; the question is–do they do this knowing that they will grow into what they mock, and are they prepared to deal with the self-loathing of having all this on record? Or do they think they’ll successfully avoid it all?

Emily Gould and Choire Sicha quit Gawker today. Last night she was at the party at n+1, while I was at their reading here. To go or not to go to the party tomorrow?

Take that, Hamlet. (I’ll spare you the suspense: I didn’t go.)

Let’s face it: this kind of oversharing is boring. The other kind—the kind I worry about here—is terribly, terribly risky.

The author of that first Salon article I stumbled on, AV Flox, does some lovely work articulating what it is that blogs have done, and how they’ve eroded levees and flooded the neighborhoods of real life. It’s blogging, I think, that made it possible for her to write the following to her aunts in an e-mail:

I have decided that a man’s libido must have an invisible umbilical cord that connects it to the New York Stock Exchange; I have no other way to account for the fact that I don’t recall the last time I was intimate with my husband…

She describes the embarrassment she felt a moment after sending it, but decides, in the end, that suburban silence is more pernicious than candor.

“So,” she concludes,

when people ask me how marriage is, I say it’s a pain in the neck. It’s like taking care of a giant, ancient machine that can help you accomplish a lot of tasks in the emotional fulfillment department, but which constantly needs maintenance and calibration.

At the risk of further boring you, dear friend, I Overshare two other things I found in that same notebook, from when I was trying to calibrate my own marriage.

On a day when I woke up (warning: TMI ahead omg!) wanting sex:

It was the Cal-USC game. X looks good in his cowboy hat. The kitchen was clean—I did it late last night. X picked the living room and bedroom up a bit. Oh, environment.

Norman Mailer died. An assistant killed Linda Stein with a yoga stick. A girl in Italy is being held for helping to kill her roommate in some sort of sexual context. Benazir Bhutto is out and about. Mark Danner is in the Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I listened to David Bowie. And Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Nazis were the other dominant story theme. Made my first Itunes purchase—2 episodes of The Office.

Saw D, N and Baby yesterday. Very cute, but so far from what I’m prepared for, and X is much farther still. Thinks it’s conformist and conventional to have one, doesn’t feel he wants one but feels the inevitability of it.

The powder for beef onion gravy does not make tasty beef onion soup. This should not be surprising. But I thought of Ramen. My high school reunion was today—that just occurred to me.

On another Day, following a dream in which I yelled at two manicurists in a large white warehouse (calling one of them—and I was proud of this—“Barber Barbie”), I find that I was already struggling with this problem of Gifts and Work in Marriage and had in fact unconsciously developed the solution I suggested to you—namely, turning everyday things into the gifty currency:

Why do some old men always wear dark glasses? How do some people always offer to do the dishes, even when it isn’t a real offer?

What’s an offer? To make an offer. What does that mean? A coffer is a container for expensive things.

A Coffer of Offers

  1. a neckrub
  2. to do the dishes
  3. to vacuum a room
  4. to leave the apartment for 1 1/2 hours
  5. to sweep up the porch
  6. to edit a paper for you
  7. to read an article you enjoyed and talk about it
  8. to read a story you enjoyed and talk about it
  9. to make the bed
  10. to clean the bathroom
  11. to shake out the bathroom rugs

It’s a terrible little list.

But what did YOU make of the Oversharing, dear CF?

Fondly,

Millicent

Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work

Dear heart,

I have indeed been at sea, but miss you and am sipping Tippy Assam tea and staring in befuddlement at a lovely bouquet of flowers much like the one you left me last time you visited. I’ve been thinking about gifts, you see, and am feeling a little seasick as a result.

I did read the articles on American Mothers, the bitch/nag problem, and have been pondering the complications you mention because a guest in my home is thinking of cohabiting with her boyfriend. We’ve had some frank discussions about the Unexpected Tensions that arise and arrest the pleasures of a shared life, sort of how a shoelace catches on a nail while racing into your backyard kills the spontaneous onrush of childlike whimsy.

This guest has a tendency, even now, to occupy the Nag niche, which arises in response to a partner who does respond to some prodding. An example: he proposed that they move together to another country so that he could study something for two years. She had a fit because in making the proposal he failed to think out a single step of the plan—not how they would pay for plane tickets, or what she would do there, or how they would live  (she doesn’t speak the language), or how the gap might affect her own very successful career trajectory.

The fight that ensued seems fairly typical of the NYTimes article dynamic: he was startled and hurt by her outrage. He claimed he was merely floating the idea, wanted her input, was very much considering their life together: he was asking her what she thought, wasn’t he? To him, the conversation itself was a gesture of inclusion, a move toward some sort of togetherness. She felt oppressed by the practical dimensions of the situation which he clearly hadn’t considered, and which by default she assumed. So while he intended the gesture to be inclusive, she ended up feeling not only alone, but also weighed down by work, the demands of two lives instead of one.

I bring up the backyard-run because the concept to me encapsulates one of the sweeter red herrings in the myth of domestic life. It seems like marriage  should aspire to that kind of ease: both parties are eager. There’s momentum, there’s desire and there’s that slightly embarrassing sentimentality or fresh-faced optimism that forces couples to hide their pet names and schlocky-but-tender rituals.

How does this all fit into your work, dear CF, and marriage generally? I suppose, like the reality (vs. the romance) of being a Writer, the real thing ends up being quite a lot of determinedly schlubby Work. So much bending is actually required on both sides in order to lay down peacefully and rest at the end of the night.

I drag gifts into this because I’ve been thinking about them a great deal in relation to the problem of work in my own life. I still haven’t read Hyde’s The Gift. I want to, because (thanks to you) it crosses my mind more than any unread book really ought to.

I have, as you know, recently been given some rather large gifts by someone very kind and quite lovely. However, my idea in pursuing this particular relationship was to experience something informal, light, and casual. The gifts were ostensibly given in that spirit, and yet they’ve done quite a lot of work weighing the whole enterprise down with the Ghost of Girlfriendhood Future.

Now, Beowulf. (I promise there’s a point buried in here. Bear with me.) The poem is about many things: kingship, the problems of aging, arbitrating between the competing value systems of Christianity and warrior culture; it’s about civilization vs. barbarism, truces and revenge.  To be cast out of the mead-hall, in B’s world, is to be condemned to death or to become monstrous. Not unnatural—nature, in this poem is monstrous, lethal, and hostile to human habitation. So any creature that can survive it (like Grendel and his mother) is by definition inhuman but also natural. What’s valued here is artifice, work. The work of building something solid and beautiful and absolutely unnatural together against the wilderness.

Most importantly, it’s about the bonds that hold a civilization together—a civilization structured (literally—the architecture of the mead-hall is hugely important) around male companionship. And the male bond between a king and his thanes (or other tribes) is cemented through a) the exchange of women through marriage, which always fails, and b) the exchange of gifts.

The gifts in question are incredibly worked. They are gold. They are beautiful and heavy. They come in sets. They are earned—and this is problematic—in battle. (They are in fact plunder.) But despite the emphasis on work, artifice, and the beauty of the object, the point is never the gift itself—rather, it’s the gift’s ritual function in cementing  a relationship.

A good king in the poem, Hrothgar, starts out a warrior (in other words a plunder-collector) and ends up a “ring-giver,” a giver of gifts. Beowulf dies in the end because he fails at this transition as he ages. No longer the warrior he was, he nonetheless decides to confront the dragon alone—a dragon who incidentally only turned on B’s kingdom because a banished man stole a gold object from his hoard to win back Beowulf’s favor.

The point is, he fails, and his mead-hall—which, like Heorot, is called the “best of houses”—fails too, because of misdirected effort. Work gone awry.

This illustrates something important, I think, between gifts and work. You know how the universe is created out of matter and energy? Relationships, I think, and houses, and families, and civilizations, are created out of gifts and work. Just as matter and energy are finally the same thing, gifts and work are interconvertible.

The key is, the gifts must matter to the recipient, and must be recognized as gifts. There must be a moment of ritual reckoning, a presentation, even, when both giver and receiver understand what is being transacted and why. What happens, I think, to these American moms (and it certainly happened to me in my marriage, and has happened to my own parents, and to my guest too) is that women often eagerly participate in this gift-giving economy with an idea of selflessness or modesty. They give “freely” of their time, their effort, their energy, sure that the results—a clean bathroom, Valentines for the kid’s classmates, space for the spouse to work—are noticed and appreciated.

This “free” giving makes sense for children, but not for spouses. It’s not really free, and the minute the giver realizes that the recipient didn’t even NOTICE the gift, much less appreciate it, a conversion happens: the gift retroactively turns into work. It’s a debit, not a credit. The result? Instead of achieving the exalted status of giver, the offering party becomes merely a worker. And the recipient incurred a debt when he didn’t even know he was shopping.

There’s a reason gift-giving in Beowulf works (and marriage doesn’t): it only happens between men. I think men are better at making a song-and-dance about gifts than women are. The culture raises them that way: the gesture, the bouquet, the ring. The new car for the kid. Women are NEVER taught to give in this way. Somehow women tend to opt out of the gesture-thing, the meadhall presentation of gifts. So we tend to offer smaller gifts without a lot of pomp, which (from the men’s point of view) pretty much invalidates the function of the gift since it’s the ritual meaning, not the gift itself, that matters.

The result is a weird disparity where everybody’s giving what they themselves would like to receive. The small thoughtful embroidered scarf vs. the anonymous Ferrari. It’s the absurdity of the Golden Rule. (Quick digression: A recent study found that men’s necks are approximately 10x less sensitive than women’s. Therefore, when a man kisses your neck, he’s unwittingly delivering 10x more pleasure than he himself feels when you kiss his. Because he doesn’t know that, he might not kiss your neck that often, or quite believe you when you tell him how good it feels.)

I can’t believe how rambly this has gotten. Sorry.

Back to my situation: the gifts I received from this kind person have turned out (for me) to be quite a lot of work because I SIMPLY REFUSE TO BELIEVE that he’s not participating in this Beowulfy gift economy where the point of the gift is the ritual and not the gift itself. He’s a warrior of sorts, and I just can’t convince myself that he’s really truly opting out of an economy that’s so firmly rooted in ritual. (You can’t get more Beowulfy than the military.) I refuse to believe that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a television is just a television, a bouquet is just a bouquet, because it flies in the face of everything I know to be true about men and their gifting ways.

Is it possible, I wonder, that he’s really truly transcended his own model and is participating quite insightfully in mine? It’s all very confusing, because while there was no ritual, no grand presentation, the object itself does amount to quite a large gesture that doesn’t quite compare to the quiet gifts of vacuuming every day or (in your very difficult case) putting off your work to accommodate his plans.

In your case, dear CF, I wonder if a small part of the solution is not to view your choices as Gifts, because they so often get converted in your head to Work. Relationships are work—they’re gold-roofed mead-halls that protect us from the wilds of nature—and it’s the work that invests them with value. But the work they demand is enough. There’s really no need to overachieve. I’ve already—just by agonizing about my own situation as much as I have—put in way more work than was warranted or appropriate or necessary or right, and am sucking all the fun out of it.

So: as far as the things that invite one to nag, I guess I’m suggesting an Experiment: If they are Gifts, proclaim them, celebrate them, build a fire and present them in full diamond-hand regalia. If they aren’t, don’t make them. For awhile, maybe try to stop yourself from making those invisible offerings, because they’re costing you too much and Mr CF is—through no fault of his own—maxing out his line of credit.

For what it’s worth, I think you’re both working hard, I think your meadhall is glorious, and I think you’re both fabulous ring-givers. How this work relates to your own work is, of course, an entirely different question, and God knows this has gotten long enough.

Fondly, and at sea (or, to use a kenning, on the whale-road),
Millicent

(This post responds to “Le Marriage et Le Travaille,” available here.)

Le Marriage et Le Travaille

Dearest Millicent,
I think you are wandering in a forest somewhere. Perhaps in the fog or at the buffet in a boat-shaped restaurant? Wherever you are, I hope you return to us soon. Our cozy tearoom is lonely when all I have to chat with is the embroidered floral chair across the way (it’s next to the picture of you on the camel (sepia tone, of course)).

I’m writing because of a convergence of blog posts and my own life. As you well know, Mr. Carla Fran and I have the same profession (if either of us can actually boldly claim “writing” as our profession, but it is on our tax forms, so…). Many are warned not to marry within the profession: too much jealousy, not enough money. And one of our great gripes is the balance between work. His work is part of his every day routine, and almost as much a priority in his life as a cup of coffee. My work (while I would say equally important) is not as daily as coffee, and I tend to eek and squish it into my schedule when nobody is looking. This means that I often witness his focus, and he rarely sees mine. It also means that he often changes plans around his work, while I often change my work for plans (thus the eeking and squishing). Neither of us is wrong in our behaviors, but it does make us (mainly me) a little, shall we say….itchy…every once in awhile. Today, I got itchy.

Yesterday, I read Courtney’s post at feministing about “The Pandora’s Box of Cohabitation” , about how one is caught in the vice of “to nag or not to nag.” She writes about a box her boyfriend won’t put away, and how she mainly aims to remain calm and not freak out over the box that is driving her crazy. He does eventually put it away for his own reasons, but for her, the worry blooms into a model of what shared responsibility might be in their future: her bending, trying to be patient, silently quite irked, while he does what he wants. She threads this into a reverie of what childrearing might look like, and the devastation such a model could plausibly create.

Today, there was a discussion on the Huffington Post and NY Times about the same thing, but now totally focused on the parenting aspect. Apparently there are many moms that feel like they do the majority of the managing of parenthood. It boiled down to moms doing all of the mental work (shoe sizes, valentines for class, friends) while dads popped in and drove the van every once in awhile.

When I first read Courtney’s post, I thought it was a little hyperbolic, but I think I understand the worry that she was simply brave enough to offer in its full articulation. In general, we do bend more, put more aside, hold our tongues and rearrange (some of this due to the fear of looking like the dreaded bitch/nag)? Or, maybe many a marriage crisis is based on both partners thinking they are doing all the bending. The NY Times article mentioned that no fathers gave their side. I’m sure a good reporter could find some dads that are rockstars at shared work, but would that be representative?

Mr. Carla Fran is a bit of a rockstar in considering my needs, but (and I might agree with him on this) when it comes down to our argument about rearrangement/itchiness/bending, the answer usually is that I am the one with the negative behavior; I am the one putting myself in the overextended situation that I am then mad at him for. Is this ultimately one more repetition of the model, or a possible me-shaped door that I can learn to open?

In short, everybody thinks they are working quite hard, but is there a way to navigate this common place without turning into Balky (yes, I am referencing “Perfect Strangers”) or Andy Capp (not the hot fries, the comic strip, where he is always on the run from his terrible hag wife)?

Yours,
CF

(For other posts on marriage and work, see “Beowulf and Marriage, Gifts and Work.”)

Thoughts on the Minority of Singelty

Dearest Millicent,

I just shared a short conversation with a friend dismayed at the single world.  He knows that the world if full of interesting women he could date, and yet he can’t find any of them.  He is thinking of leaning towards the internet for assistance. He hates the thought of dating because of the germs involved, and that there is no woman out there that will fit his bill (he is looking for a lady without a tattoo).

Do you think we have gotten to an age where singlehood, instead of being universal, is now the land of connecting loose ends (I know this single person and that single person, so therefore, they will meet and not be single)?  I don’t mean this to sound callous, and I am as in shock as this friend and others who talk of the oddity of newfound singlehood; we are at the new, unteenaged age where single isn’t instant and universal.  We are too young for these maps of society, or at least, our generation need not fall into the Cathy comic strip complaints.  I keep thinking I need to dig up old episodes of Thirtysomething and learn how to navigate these waters.

Also, I was at a bar tonight where I had the funny experience of getting an actual eyeball from a young man, and then realizing the TV was over my head….leading to the strange doublecheck of “was that smile for me or for the team that just made a basket?”

Hope this finds you with a cup of nog,

Yours,

CF

Wedunlocking the Never-Ending Story

Dearest CF,

That’s an extraordinary passage. It hits home. I want to add, parenthetically, that I agree with your parallels to Alice Munro, and I’m surprised she hasn’t traversed that territory more than she has. She comes close, I think. But the type of wife that comes closest–dulled by habit and nearly (though not quite) unaware of her enclosures–comes across as almost animalistic. I’m thinking of scenes where sex is demanded by old husbands and granted as if it were pot roast.

As you know, I know what you mean. Lessing’s formulation of the phenomenon puzzles me a little. Is she calling it both naivete and sophistication?

Why is it so hard to summon up that surplus of vision when you’re with someone else?

My answer: I spent so much time trying to justify my vision of things, long after he’d lost interest in the conversation, that I came to internalize his viewpoint and find myself perversely arguing against him in my own head. Which was disastrous in its own right, since I never had real access to his thought process. So I ended up clawing at the world view of a ghost of my own making.

Now that he’s gone, I can encounter many of the things he loved without feeling crowded or derivative. It’s startling: I never expected that the relationship itself was making it impossible for me to have fresh encounters. I could never have belly-danced. Or shot a gun. It wouldn’t have been the same. It would have been filtered—coffee-dripped, in fact—through the inexorable french press that our marriage had become.

The worst thing about this in my case, like yours, is that it was my own fault.

Is it, I wonder, a little like collaborating on a story? Difficult, with lots of elbowing for the armrest because we’re used to narrating our lives alone? And yet ultimately redemptive and transcendent if only you can agree on the language and characters, never mind the plot?

I think the naive and lonely self permits alchemical bursts because it’s always “on.” Like you in the grocery store. It can’t relax into the comfort of a shared story. Or if it does, it’s only for short bursts. The thing about marriage is that it’s a never-ending story minus the flying dragon-dog. You’re always in it, even when you’re alone. It’s funny that way.

Is the trick method acting? Pretending to be alone, breaking through the story you have every so often in order to pick up the jagged angles and fragments? Choosing a part when you’re alone in the grocery store and acting it out? Woman who wants to make an Eggplant Casserole and Asks for Recipes. Woman Whose Dog Just Died. Woman In the Army Home on Leave. Goody Two-Shoes. Lesbian. Gourmand Obsessed with A Particular Cut of Meat, Evangelizing the Public.

For what it’s worth, I love the couple on the balcony. Of all the couples in that movie, that’s the one I’d choose. Or maybe the nurse, whose husband we never meet.

Fondly,
Millicent

Jaded Robots, Let’s Just Watch Something With Dancing

Some thoughts.

1.) I need to find out who Tucker Max is or Tucker Carlson, or whatever his name is.  I keep getting his name confused with that teeny bop movie that came awhile ago, called something like “Tucker so and so must die.”

2.) As we are talking about the firecracker–the need to know and judge the artifacts of our world, I got to chomping on why I get so defensive about the cultural things I love–the way I can get nauseated and sweaty when somebody else claims ownership or appreciation of something that I am a strong fan of.  I get hotly protective when somebody starts yapping about something that particularly touched my life, and yet I know many of these things touch many peoples lives, and are classics.  But, it’s always important to my sense of self and ego that it touched me more specially than anybody else–that it was mine.  I think this comes from what we want from our inspirations.  We love them–love them to the point where our chests feel like bursting and we are so happy to have this beautiful thing in our lives, it hurts, it makes our life better, beautiful even.  We have found love.  And we want it to love us back, to be monogamous, and to appreciate and receive our specific attentions.  And so, it hurts when we find out our lover has been giving itself away to any other stranger that stumbled into its pages, harmonies, films, etc.

And then the other panic arises–the one that screams that as a lover, and mind, you are not individual, but actually part of a huge demographic that goes gaga in the exact same way you do. We are no longer on intimate terms with the object, but now part of a throng.  There is no way to be loved distinctly back.

I like the idea here that if I could let the ego go (which I can’t–it’s ferocious) and share the appreciation with others, it would be a more creative and restorative approach to these cultural artifacts that wind me up so much.  To share the work of the lover with the other lovers might ultimately be more rewarding than trying to squeeze something from the thing itself (to be the most authentic fan, to get noticed, to work with, to have holy communion with, I don’t know).  I also like the idea that the more fans that attach to these things the wider the door for appreciation becomes–expansive instead of the grabby.  Artistic and creative instead of all-knowing and approval seeking.   It’s the old possession versus creation aspect of love–lover and beloved.

But how did I get here? I meant to talk about other things.  I think it is because the cultural denizens (am I using this word correctly?) I have met always outrage me when they hate something because it is popular, and then I go and do the same thing about something else.  They love their mantle of cultural explorer and use up many calories defending it.  Chunklet (a music/culture mishmash rooted in Georgia) has this great character called Jaded Robot that represents that kind of unimpressed guy voice which covers that entire field of blazing opinions without actually engaging.  The faux sophisticate. I don’t think this is what our firecracker friends are, but it is part of the conversation, no?

Okay–back to business: do you still have Netflix? If so, I offer “Pocketful of Miracles” as our cinematic jaunt.  Bette Davis plays a homeless woman, and it looks like there is a grand charade where everybody has to pretend they are royalty.  If no Netflix, we will reconfigure our plan of idle attack.

As for your firecracker–yes, gunpowder.  Some of them are for real–and here I wonder if the attention to the cultural artifacts is from the access to definition it offers–the control of identity and place and knowledge of the world that such cataloging offers?

I have yammered so long, but your thoughts made me pause, and made me ache a little bit, and made me want some silly movie to watch (I wonder, is this our own way of engaging in this judgy judgy game, or since we do it with play in mind, are we the lovelier animal in all ways?)  The answer is yes, methinks.

Why did I stop numbering my thoughts halfway through?

Yours,

CF

The Post-Mortem

Dear one,



How to explain the death of a powerful crush? Curiously enough (or not curiously at all), I too talked to a beloved mutual friend about firecrackers, only in a romantical connection—-namely, the problem of love/hating them.



The Firecracker (Male) is exciting. He takes you to unexpected places and shows a different way of rubbing elbows with the world. His gift is his uniqueness and his insistence on that uniqueness–his cultivation of what you rightly identify as sophistication or indie-intellect. It’s a beautiful facade; the boy equivalent of makeup or a Joan-Holloway-type foundation garment. The problem is that the structures underlying all this are only informed by real passion (in our metaphor, a flawless complexion? a perfect torso?) half the time. The rest of the time this creature’s life is governed by the need to feed the monsters of exclusivity and rarefied taste.

Having written that, I think it’s wrong. I wish it were really just a question of authenticity vs. pretension. I don’t think it is. I used to think that the virulent strain of contempt displayed by the urban sophisticate was all bluster. It was a comfort to think that no one really cared all that much, that these determined forays into the unvisited corners of the internet (or the record store, or the video rental place) were fact-gathering missions. These are our modern-day explorers, the people who dig up the crazy and funny and arcane and present it to you. They’re the docents of the world, and I love their investigative powers and their passion and their insistence on finding the out-of-the-way thing.


The fact is, though, that what drives that kind of research is avoidance–or hatred–or judgment–of the in-the-way thing, otherwise they probably wouldn’t bother.


Now I know we’re all guilty of these sorts of judgments, but the fact is that as much as I hate Tucker Max, I don’t despise his readers. I don’t find them stupid and blinkered, and I can’t despise the structures that produced them. And he’s a more pernicious influence than, say, Napoleon Dynamite. Or Sleepless in Seattle. It’s like hating someone for eating junk food. Sure, you could make better choices, but I have a hard time getting really worked up about the fact that the Moldy Peaches song at the end of Juno shows up three times earlier.


But they do get worked up, even when they’re not creating anything in their own right. How right you are to point out that people get inarticulate when asked to explain their opinions. Is it too embarrassing? Does it expose the wiring too crudely? Is it that they really haven’t thought about it? You say you find this exhausting–I wish you would say more. I hunger for that kind of explanation; I want so badly to understand the steps of reasoning, the premises, the aesthetic underpinnings. I want this education because in its absence I find the Firecrackers paralyzing. I find them toxic.


And yet I’m drawn to them like sodium to chloride. Married one, in fact.


The end of my story is that I WISH it were pretentiousness. I could overlook that. The shock of my marriage was that it wasn’t–Firecrackers are actually filled with gunpowder, not bathhouse salts that gently scrub your impurities away and reveal your better self. There’s a kickback, there’s blue flame. They’re the .44, not our .22 Gunnie.


Our friend observed, and I think she’s right, that the truly interesting Firecracker is so because the “interesting” choice is always the one that permits the attachments of the world to fall away like a shiny piece of tinfoil wrapping a tuna sandwich. In this respect I agree wholeheartedly with your account of wickedness as the easiest path to Firecrackerness. Whether wickedness, mania, etc., masks a lack of talent or is a necessary evil for it, I wouldn’t like to say.


This actually reminds me of the idea of the Calvinist elect–a certain predestined few are Chosen, so everyone must behave as if they were. If not, they betray that they are not. You yourself have taught me to accept, grudgingly, that some of the Firecrackers are indeed Chosen People.


My fantasy, I suppose, is an inclusive Firecracker.


My crush was not one.


I feel I’ve been of very little comfort to you in dealing with your own Firecrackers. I wish for you matches and a long wick.


Let’s stay in the sixties. I leave you to choose our first film, and I promise to watch it within a day. Today, even!


Fondly,
Millicent