Adult Content and Contentment

a sociological explanation…

After repeated commendations from critic and author Jessa Crispin, I recently read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Despite the mortifying title and cover art, it’s a compellingly argued treatise on the many ways in which capitalism, feminism and technology, by addressing pre-modern power imbalances between men and women, have unwittingly created new ones that may be no more conducive to happiness than the systems they’ve replaced. It’s not a condemnation of the progress that has been made so much as a sober examination of that which remains. The book surveys heterosexual, middle-class Western courtship codes, critiques contemporary economic, psychological, biological explanations for human behavior and draws heavily upon literary sources, from Roman de la Rose to Austen’s Regency novels, from Madame Bovary to Bridget Jones. While some find fault with casting a net of research so wide, doing so illustrates the ephemerality and malleability of behaviors we often attribute to innate gender differences. Withholding moral judgment, analyzing romantic decisions through the contexts in which they are taken aka “the architecture of choice” and presenting the frequently unsatisfactory results with Chekhovian pathos, Illouz offers a smart alternative to the narcissism or oversimplification of pop-psychology. The result is a cool, informative discussion of a topic typically relegated, at least on bookstore shelves, to mediocrity and predation.

Illouz’s argument resists distillation, but here goes. Capitalism, feminism and technology have given women and men more economic, sexual and experiential freedom than ever. And freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose… Many of her observations are enlightening in their perspective. For example, when smitten men pursued women in olden days it was interpreted as nobility of character, morally transcendent and even the socially responsible thing to do, yet when women do it now men fear it is evidence of a toxic, peculiarly feminine neediness. Illouz’s explanation for this new form of sexism is impressively non-judgmental. She also deconstructs how and why we have come to interpret reciprocated love as a measure of self-worth, an apparently modern idea that would have baffled the lovelorn of yore. Gender roles have always been oppressive, and love has always involved suffering. But as a friend lamented about living in contemporary Moscow, “At least in the bad old days you knew what to expect.”

I take issue with Illouz’s assertion that modern women disproportionately value commitment because they are starting families later and have a smaller window of fertility and hotness than men. Why is commitment to another person as an illustration of respect and maturity not considered outside the realm of parenting? Expectations of commitment are alive and well in other spheres of life. We maintain roles of mutual support in dealings with family and friends. We don’t show up to work on an as-fits-our-schedule basis. And the Dickensian ruthlessness with which student loan repayments are required suggests the Devil himself expects an 18 year old boy to be a man of his word. To bail on even casual acquaintances is considered poor form. Codes of dependability appear, in Illouz’s observations, singularly inconsequential to those with whom we are most intimate and vulnerable. This is bizarre to me. And I don’t even go in for marriage.

Women: Where is their there there?

Illouz’s book reminds us that it remains surprisingly radical for women to forego the roles of mother and wife and to be taken at their word when they do so. The unmarried mother has become almost ubiquitously socially acceptable in the U.S. Married women who remain childless, if equally “tragic,” are increasingly common. A woman who desires neither husband nor child is looked upon with suspicion and confusion, like there’s no there there. I want to understand why. The presumption that women are, zombie-like, compelled bear children is as reductive as the presumption that men are, zombie-like, compelled to spread their seed. Like those of most men, most women’s bodies are designed to procreate. They are also designed to begin deteriorating at a certain age, but it would be absurd to suggest that ergo we must secretly want our teeth to fall out and hips to shatter. There is nothing defective in not desiring parenthood any more than free will is a defect. Marriage? It is a legal contract, a strange thing to be biologically predisposed to.

A common refrain about childless singles is that they seek to evade adult responsibility and perpetuate a state of selfish infantilism. Yet adulthood comes with endless responsibilities, most of which are not optional. The accusation of selfish infantilism is either creepily Freudian or inaccurately conflates the experience of childhood with that of being spoiled. Perhaps it is not adulthood one attempts to evade by clinging to autonomy, but its antithesis. Perhaps perpetual infancy isn’t sought so much as interrupted. A male acquaintance commiserated with my confession that as a kid I couldn’t wait to become an adult: “I wanted to grow up so people would stop talking to me like I am a child and show me some respect,” he said. I shook my head in frustration and replied, “But I am a woman. People still talk to me like I am a child.”

The revival of Twin Peaks got me thinking about the social anxiety womanhood produces. When it originally aired, I watched it religiously. It was the epitome of cool. The music. The clothes. The camp. I had friends over for viewing parties, drank coffee, ate pie, the whole thing. I dressed like Audrey Horne, taught myself to tie a cherry stem in my mouth and fell asleep listening to Julee Cruise tapes. In hindsight, I suspect I must have appreciated the way young women were portrayed as adults, not just through their sexuality, but their composure, sophistication, secrets, pasts, autonomy and power. The teens in Twin Peaks sat at the adult table. But as the series confirmed, young women doing adult things is problematic, even dangerous. You should have seen the look on my mother’s face when I finally got the cherry stem in a knot. Precocious girls induce anxiety because they mature too quickly. Precocious women induce anxiety because they mature too slowly. By mature, we mean become a mother.
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Object Permanence

Early last November before the election, before gatherings with extended family reinforced suspicions of complicity rather than bonds of kinship, I spent an evening with my estranged cousin. Not estranged estranged. Nor even very distant in terms of relation or travel. But whose connection to my life had ruptured over the course of a decade of funerals for those who had maintained our association. I’ve always admired my cousin in a childlike way that makes me self-conscious. Her dark beauty. Her manic energy. Her irreverent humor. She reminds me of my late mother, in the way she could absolutely rob a truck stop out of necessity, in heels and a tasteful shade of lipstick, and laugh about it all the way home. In my cousin’s presence, I felt returned to the strange goo of the petri dish in which we were both cultured. All families have their idiosyncrasies. Ours are turned up to eleven. In familial jargon, “The Ladds” refers not simply to my maternal grandfather’s descendants, but to that branch of the family distinctly unlike the others, a branch wound with wild, handsome, impertinent, troublesome vines. Exotic. Invasive. We can’t be tamed, yet we are prone to strangling ourselves and thus tend to be left alone. We are not ostracized, just reminded of our prodigal status with tedious notes of envy and apprehension. We’re a family of Nastasia Filippovnas and Raskolnikovs, except we aren’t Russian. I don’t think. We may be. We may even be fictional. The truth is no one knows, or believes, the origin of our lineage. This adds to the cache and distrust roused by our inexplicable looks and even less explicable life choices. Despite having spent most of my adult life orphaned and on the run from my family’s past, I find it is wise to have dinner with someone who looks and thinks like you just often enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own neuroses.

We sat up late at the hotel that November evening debating the whereabouts of my mother’s and our grandmother’s possessions. My stepfather had my mother’s things. My aunt had my grandmother’s. Upon reflection, neither of us could recall actually having seen any of our family heirlooms in these people’s homes. The upsetting revelation came only after a few drinks and mutual assumptions, even accusations, that the other were in possession of it all. I felt low about being materialistic, but as the conversation progressed, I could smell the varnished interior of the hand-carved hutch in my childhood dining room and the half-empty whiskey bottles on my grandmother’s sideboard that had stood on that sideboard half-empty since my grandfather’s death in 1963. I could hear the clinking of tea sets and porcelain dolls as my brother and I ran rampage through my grandmother’s house. My mother had kept a black bottle of Jean Patou’s Joy in the back of her lingerie drawer, in velvet-lined box. And my grandmother, above a mid-century record console, had hung a photo of a mist-shrouded, tree-lined empty country road, perhaps in France, the trees and road disappearing into the horizon line. We conspired to rent moving trucks, kidnap our thieving elders and make them give us our stuff. It was our stuff. And it was good stuff. I’m not that into stuff. When I consider my inheritance, I think of genes, mannerisms and axioms. I was suddenly struck with the conviction that if we cannot know where a soul goes when it dies, we should at least keep tabs on its stuff after the unfortunate event. Yet it had all been the same in my experience. People are taken from us. People’s things are taken from us. The world takes indiscriminately.

Upon my departure that evening, my cousin gifted me with a set of three identically crocheted handmade scarves: one in beige, one in white and one in black. The Ladds go in for the classics. “This will never go out of style,” my mother would declare, shoving London Fog trench coats and fitted blazers into my Goth girl arms on department store outings. I only wore the black crochet scarf my cousin made for me, but I wore it often.

In the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago, there is an Irish pub I routinely visit. We could be Irish, after all. That’s the official if dubious claim. Arriving on one such visit in February, I placed my coat and scarf across the back of an empty chair. As the evening wore on, a fellow sat in the chair as people do in a crowded bar: making a gesture to brush a bit of the coat off the seat, but not daring remove it altogether. When my ride announced our imminent departure, amid a flurry of goodbyes I grabbed my coat and scurried into the night. It wasn’t cold enough to warrant zipping up, let alone fishing out my winter accessories. The next day, I took down my coat from the rack in the kitchen and reached for my scarf. The scarf wasn’t there. I remembered having thrown my hat and gloves into my bag at the pub. A black bag full of black gloves and black hats but no black scarves. I took down all the coats from the crowded rack, turned them inside out, upended my bag, searched the floors of dark closets and inspected lopsided hangers. I looked under the bed. Why my scarf would be there, who knew? But that’s where runaway things hide and whisper to you as you tear apart the room, “Do you love me enough to brave a haunted clown for me? Do you?” I did. It was ridiculous. It was just a plain scarf. But with the discussion about the Ladd family stuff, the scarf acquired inflated emotional value. When a survey of the haunted clown lair turned up nothing but some old canvass slippers, my stomach sank. Ok. I texted the friend who had driven me home, in the most nonchalant way possible, like I’d lost a scarf and not a person, like my mind knew the difference, requesting they perhaps have a poke about in the car for it. No, no scarf. Now I was going to have to call the pub. They knew me. I would tell them my name, my waitress’s name and where I’d been sitting. “Hello. I was there last night and may have left a black scarf…” “Hold on. … No ma’am. No one’s reported a black scarf.” “Oh ok, well thanks so much for checking then, I mean I didn’t think I left it there anyway,” I blurted out, angry that they probably didn’t really look, embarrassed by my own object attachment. I was devastated.

It was an unseasonably warm winter, not scarf weather anyway. I wrote off the affair as penance for allowing myself to be drawn into pettiness about material possessions, or as another test of my ability to endure loss. I tried not to think about it, this small grievance in such grave times. I accepted responsibility for my inebriated carelessness. Still, I was unable to shake the injustice. Who would steal a scarf? Everyone in Chicago already has a scarf. At least everyone who can afford imported ales. It was probably one of those rejected suitors. I recoiled with nausea, imagining some creep’s perverse molestation of my scarf. What the hell was wrong with people? Unless it was the Macedonian server. Or was he Montenegrin? He could do whatever he wanted to with it. Hot. I fantasized about my abandoned scarf’s new life as mine continued as normal.

A few days ago I was invited to return to the Avondale pub. Not for St. Patrick’s debauchery, but to meet a political operative popular with supporters of Bernie Sanders. I didn’t want to go. The wounds on both sides are still fresh and are being doused with more blame than aftercare. But earlier in the week my ailing cat had almost been taken from me too, and after days of precipitous grief and soiled laundry, I needed a break. Perhaps, I fancied, I would walk in, and on the back of the very same chair would hang my precious scarf, and as I panned the room inquiringly, the Macedonian or Montenegrin server would smile, nod to the scarf and wink. That would be nice. It probably wouldn’t happen. It certainly wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go. So I did. I approached the very same chair, strangely empty despite a crowd, and sat down. Of course the scarf isn’t here. It’s been well over a month, and this is a popular bar, and an Irish bar in March. I smiled anyway, the kind of smile Oscar nominees smile when they don’t win. I looked a bit too eagerly into my waitress’s eyes, the very same waitress, as she approached. I struggled to concentrate on the operative’s pep talk. I overcompensated with feigned interest in my surroundings as I scanned the room for my scarf. I dared not mention the matter to anyone out of shame at both my materialism and incompetence. I imagined meeting potential mates or employers: “What brings me here? One of my few living relations made me something nice and I left it at a bar, you see. So that’s me. And you?” I wasn’t unhappy to see old friends, and the Balkan beauty did wave and smile from across the room. I couldn’t regret having come. I stood with my back to the table, chatting with aspiring candidates and staffers, lingering in wait for my bill. When it arrived, I fetched my bag from under the table, and as I emerged upright, my eyes landed on the chair, in which lay a black crochet scarf folded tidily into perfect squares.

I concealed my ecstasy as I coolly as I had my earlier disappointment and asked those around if it belonged to them. No. Did they know whose it was? No. Did they see who had placed it there? No. Certainly the Bernie bro next to me hadn’t been nesting atop it the whole night. I picked it up, unfolded it and held it out like a holy shroud. It smelled of a fresh dry cleaning and not cigarette smoke or musky perfume. Or Bernie bro. In vain, I asked my waitress if she had placed it there or knew who had. No. I explained nervously, “It’s just that, well so this is weird, but I thought perhaps I left a scarf here, this scarf, over a month ago, and I mean I called, but. Look, I would like to take it, but if anyone reports having left it here tonight, let me know, and I will return it. I promise. Ok?” “If you think it’s yours, you don’t need my permission to take it,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Right. Good point.” I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Despite repeated inquiries, the scarf taker-cleaner-returner remains unknown, I suspect intentionally. There is an alluring glamour to anonymity. Is it a decision born of boredom, mischief, scandal or self-preservation? These are questions I’ve often posed about my grandfather, whose identity also remains unknown. It’s not impossible for a Ladd to be Irish; the name, if rare, appears in ship manifests leaving that country. But it is improbable. It’s just as improbable that this was his real family name. We look more … Spanish. Dark-featured Irish have had their DNA traced back to the Iberian Peninsula. And though not appearing the bloated, ruddy Irish-American stereotype, my grandfather played the part exquisitely: a prohibition bootlegger who rose through the ranks of City Hall, invited neighbors over each week to watch boxing matches and worked to help John F. Kennedy to become President. They died the same year, my grandfather leaving behind little more than fragile books of poetry, half-empty whiskey bottles and a beautiful, badly-behaved brood. Each time I resolve to investigate his past, I decide that other people’s secrets, like their stuff, are not mine to take.

It’s strange. I knew the scarf would be there. I needed it to be there. I needed the world to stop taking the Ladds and all of their stuff. My mother’s Joy. My grandmother’s finery. My grandfather’s ancestry. I’ve long doubted my entitlement to any of these things, never mind my ability to recover them. I’ve accepted the romance of mystery and nostalgia as compensation for suffering and loss. I’ve conflated my minimalist existence and the assertion that all property is theft with moral superiority. Keep your righteousness, Bernie bros; I’m living the leftist dream. But questions have been raised. What is a family without a history, but a sludge of genetic material? What is a culture without its artifacts, but an obsolete experiment? What is an object without a story, but stuff? I won’t be advocating for Focus on the Family, cultural purity or recreational shopping anytime soon or ever. And family trees are potential firewood for those of us born with axes to grind. But perhaps I’ve been too dismissive of material possessions. Even wild, handsome, impertinent and troublesome vines need something to hang onto. A crochet scarf. A fragile book of poems. A delicate teacup. A vial of perfume. Perhaps it is wise to maintain a few objects with which you share provenance, just enough to remind you that you aren’t entirely responsible for your own cultivation.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

The Maltese Courtyard: Cultivating a Garden of Earthly Delights

Contents: Not terribly safe for work but much too long for you to read on the job anyway. Can however be read in the vicinity of your wife.

I’ve seen much written recently, among the journalism, cultural criticism and literary milieux, on the topic of pornography. On the rapid decline of the industry as the internet is inundated by amateur contributions. On its disturbing use as a modality in sex education for young adults in Britain. Informative “it’s a job” accounts from women neither expressly ashamed nor naive about their work. Manifestoes asserting its culpability in the rise of bad sex between couples. Zombie debates among feminists attempting to appraise its moral value once and for all. Creative non-fiction seeking to identify the locus of the genre vis-à-vis erotica. Musing essays on unidentified muses.

I’ve noted its increasing appearance in casual conversation in an era when data privacy, security, access and profitability are the stuff of dinner party-talk. It also feels like an elephant in the proverbial room into which we as a nation forced to choose our next President have been locked, a metaphor for the spectacle we watch day in and out, leaving us feeling collectively ashamed but captivated by the obscenity. Or worse, verbatim reportage from the campaign trail. In more intimate arenas, I, a comfortably sex-positive woman, don’t get far into conversations with men before the subject arises. Usually his opinion as expressed to me hovers between, “Yeah. But it’s lame,” and “Never. It is degrading to women.” Continue reading

Stormy Weather

It was dark as dusk that afternoon when I lay down on the bed and gazed mournfully out the window. Our third floor walk-up on a narrow side street rose directly from a narrow sidewalk, on the other side of which was a narrow parkway lined with elms. A distinctly urban arrangement, yet one of forced intimacy with nature. The canopy of elms wrapped snugly around the sun room and grasped threateningly at my window, just out of its reach. In the growing darkness I rolled over and latched the frame closed to barricade myself from the approaching deluge.

Outside, a ritual summoning of the rain began. The branches thrashed. The limbs on the branches thrashed. The leaves on the limbs of the branches thrashed. It would start erratically, violently, as if possessed and intensify until they eventually thrashed together as one, in slow motion, gyrating like the last rotation of a spinning coin. Then, stillness. Silence. The entire performance would be repeated again and again until the rain arrived, sometimes lasting hours. Flashes of lightning captured the affair in lurid snapshots. I looked at my phone. No messages.

It had stormed every evening for days, for weeks. Every afternoon was oppressively hot and thick with humidity. People took water bottles with them to walk to the corner store it was so draining. People returned home bleary-eyed and monosyllabic it was so suffocating. Then at a certain point in the second half of the day, never the same time from day to day, never anyway to plan for it, never abiding forecasts, the sky would darken, trees would assume garish contortions, thunder would moan across the western border of the city and you’d hear the raucous clang of rain and hail before you saw it … like a warning. The entire city endured a daily meteorological Blitzkrieg.

Outside, people ran in all directions. Inside, people stood in windows and anxiously watched them. The narrow street became a narrow stream. The apartment shook. And it would all end as abruptly as it began. Except for the heat that refused to dissipate, always leaving it feeling unfinished somehow.

The previous evening I’d gotten out of the shower to find the day’s tempest had arrived at least three hours off schedule. He’d offered to come pick me up “all formal like” for dinner, and I had declined. I hadn’t even told him my name. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him my address. I towel dried my hair, poured a drink and monitored the storm and the clock. Storm. Clock. Sip. Storm. Clock. Sip. Thunder clapped. I cracked.”I’d like to request your chauffeur services after all.” “I’m in a cab.” Fuck. “I can have the cab swing by and pick you up.” Panic.

“No.” Continue reading

Prekrasny Diletant

Vice

My approach to music resembles my approach to booze: I know what I like and what gives me a headache, and I never cook without it. I can get loose-limbed on Charles Shaw, and I can send back a poorly made cocktail. Twice if need be. I have high standards and prosaic pleasures.

I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently, and I keep coming back to my peculiar relationship to it as a field of interest. When I am passionate about something, I usually want to know everything about it, analyze it, be able to craft informed critique, flaunt my discriminating taste and flash my repertoire of knowledge. I want to preface proclamations about it with the word “actually.” I can be a pretty impossible person to be around at times. But I am content to listen to the music I love with willful abandon, sometimes never even asking its name.

I know I’m not a music snob because I know a lot of music snobs. People who are opera singers, who run classical record labels, who DJ at hipster stations, who hang out at the local record store for fun and who go to all those gigs where some band you’ve never heard of killed it. When I think of people who are music snobs, I think of people who know what’s on the liner notes, who have season tickets to the symphony or, hell, who actually buy music. This is not me. Jim DeRogatis is not a person with whom I feel I could ever have an informed conversation, though I can easily hold my own on just about any other art form, even if it requires a good deal of improvisation and charming admissions of ignorance about a particular figure. Though I have remained curious and even a bit snooty about music, my investment in it has always been visceral rather than intellectual.

It’s not just my investment. It’s my addiction. I cannot not function without it. I visit friends or family, wine and conversation flow, food is prepared, laughter fills a room, and if music is playing I think, “This, this is life. This is the answer to the question, ‘Why?'” If no music is playing, I am perplexed, and over the course of the evening I convince myself my hosts are aliens or psychopaths who didn’t get the memo that in order to pass as human you have to listen to music. Because that’s what human souls need. By the end of the night I’m having a psychotic break like a tormented Twilight Zone character and don’t feel safe until I am home. I listen to music to celebrate, yes, but to motivate, to rage, to calm… Routinely to complete the mise-en-scene of my life, which is sometimes the only part of it one has control over.

Saintly Relics

I’ve often read that scent is the sense most evocative of memory. After my mother died, I purchased a bottle of the Oscar de la Renta perfume she wore when I was a child, when she’d come home from a night on the town and the cold night air would carry her scent through the opened door, announcing her arrival moments before I saw her, looking as beautiful as Sophia Loren, swooping us into her intoxicating arms.

Sometimes I still open the bottle and remember her like that. More often, I listen to her music. Like all children, before I had my music, I had my mother’s. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin, The Mamas & The Papas, The Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hair, The Doors, The Dead. It’s the Motown music I associate most with my early childhood, my parents cranking up the car radio while I nodded off in the backseat, their nostalgia lending already soulful music the haunting allure of a bygone-era. I looked up at the stars and imagined a time when everyone ironed their shirts and had velvety voices and slicked back black hair. And Hair. But Hair wasn’t played on the radio back then.

Then there was my paternal grandmother, who taught me to waltz to a scratchy old record compilation of classical compositions like “Humoresque,” “Greensleeves” and “Claire de Lune.” And my maternal grandmother, who watched the The Grand Ole Opry and had us kids listening to Johnny Cash every night such that he may as well have been a family member, a grandfather whom I never met. And my older cousin playing Carly Simon and Linda Ronstadt on sunny summer afternoons when her good-for-nothing husband was out of the house. If you searched my playlists today, you’d find all these artists somewhere. Not entirely because I adore their music, but because they connect me to people I no longer have. Because people pass through our lives and their signature scents get discontinued, but their music does not.

Communion

We got cable TV when I was a kid, right around the time the first video killed a radio star. Continue reading