Friday, April 23, 2010

Marriage ala Mode

What a happy and holy fashion it is that those who love one another should rest on the same pillow. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Himself wears noise cancelling headphones to listen to music. I call them the “wife cancellers.” They provide him refuge from the triple whammy of noise pollution induced by my ample body stomping, the groan of the machine and the TV on maximum volume while I exercise on the treadmill. He rates the treasured devices highly on Amazon. I road test them myself when I disembark the treadmill by screaming things like, “When I come home and see you’ve already set the table it feels like a royal edict to cook and by the way, you set it very carelessly considering the amount of the time and energy I devote to shopping for and preparing your meals. The napkins are often very sloppily creased and the forks uncentered, just thrown down there. Why must you, ordinarily so punctilious about language, stubbornly refer to saucers and desert plates and dinner plates and soup bowls all as ‘dishes?’ I feel trivialized when you call my briefcase a purse. I wish you would stop saying ‘What?’ instead of ‘Pardon?’ I hate it when you wear socks in bed.” He smiles sweetly, blissed out, listening to obscure Irish punk while I spew my litany of complaints. Himself thinks that I resent the wife cancellers but once in a while, they’re a cheap alternative to marriage counseling.

One of my girlfriends has two kids by a guy who is unable to apply for employment because he has a couple of outstanding warrants and even if he could, the wages would be garnished for child support of the two children he’s fathered by two different other girlfriends. Another friend lived with a guy for two years and bore his son. Unbeknownst to her, he was involved simultaneously with and knocked up another woman. After both baby mamas found him out and told him to kiss off, he impregnated yet another woman and now has three children and zero wives. He works close to where my friend lives with her son but only sees the boy a couple times a year. These are respectable, intelligent women, not bar floozy slatterns. The women’s movement has helped confer more societal acceptance for motherhood sans marriage but hasn’t seemed to have enough salubrious affect on men being assholes.

My parents always said that my sister Sheri, also an intelligent, attractive woman, had terrible taste in men. She glommed onto felons, drug addicts, alcoholics, compulsive gamblers and batterers who sent her to the hospital. To add to her humiliation, they were always the ones who dumped her and memories of her self abasement in struggling to hang on to one loser after another make me cringe. Sheri was fourteen years older than I was and I wonder if she’d come of age in the 1970s like I did, rather than the late fifties, things would have been different.

My mother had one long term boyfriend after her divorce from my father but wasn’t rescued by him. She did a lot of dating but never found the wealthy generous man who wanted to devote his life to worshiping her beauty. During marriage, my father never changed a diaper, washed a dish or shopped for groceries, as was typical of husbands and fathers of this era. Is it any wonder that my mother looked for something different in a mate than what I found in my dish washing, diaper changing but too dense to grocery shop beloved?

I sometimes research footage of feminist protests from the early 1970s. The outfits and the shrillness of rhetoric make me laugh. I often have the same reaction to vintage civil rights footage, and early gay rights parades are pretty colorful too. But it was those courageous enough to be in your face and obnoxious that paved the way for the gentler, reasonable voices which affected genuine social change.

When I joined the workforce in 1975, a woman couldn’t open a credit account or purchase a car without her husband’s permission. In 1975 women’s salaries averaged only 58% of men’s earnings but by 2009 this had increased to 80%. I suspect some disparity is inevitable because women often lose seniority in the workforce by taking maternity leave. Now, there are 2.1 million women with unemployed husbands who are sole family providers. The disproportionate hit men are taking with the current employment crisis will probably help narrow the gap between women and men’s earnings over the next few years. The stresses of unemployment will sadly tear some families apart but I hope too that unemployed fathers seize the opportunity to become more involved in parenting.

I am still catching up with classic novels by listening to CDs in the car. I reported here recently about my disappointment with Moby Dick and all the boring whale minutiae. I loved Mill on the Floss, and like other works by Brit chick writers of the era, it sheds light on the status of women during the late 19th century. In many ways with regard to property rights and sexual freedom, the wheels for the advancement of the fairer sex spun excruciatingly slowly from George Eliot’s era until the 1970s when the civil rights movement made parity of the sexes seem possible, at least in the U.S. Maggie Tolliver, of Mill on the Floss, bristles at the inequity of social and financial conventions but she nurtures her own intelligence and has sophisticated insight into the moral and social conventions of her time and class.

I find two earlier works by British women less satisfying. Mansfield Park is not considered Jane Austen’s finest novel and while published 46 years earlier than Mill on the Floss, the heroine Fanny Price is spineless and simpering, particularly when compared to Elliot’s philosophical Maggie Tulliver. I complete the triumvirate with Wuthering Heights which is my least favorite of the three. I guess the gothic milieu isn’t my thing and I hated all the characters and felt them overwrought. Therefore, I wasn’t much affected by the physical and psychic brutality meted out and/or endured. As in Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights chronicles the romance and marriage of first cousins which was commonplace and encouraged, particularly among the upper classes in Britain.

U.S. physicians began conducting studies on the progeny of first cousin marriage at asylums in the 1840s and states began to ban it in the 1860s. The marriage of first cousins is currently illegal or restricted to couples unable to bear children in 24 U.S. states. The practice was more prevalent however in England and in 1875 it is estimated that 3.5% of the middle class and 4.5% of nobles were married to first cousins. By the 20th century this decreased to 1% of the entire population and the practice continues to be legal throughout Britain today. Recent genetic studies report that there is virtually no greater risk of abnormalities for children conceived by first cousins than for those born of non-consanguineous unions but to me it just seems icky. Although, if I discovered that Daniel Day Lewis is my cousin I might be less repulsed.

I do not know if it’s corollary to the general change in the status of women and the resulting expectation of self containment, but having read recently three 19th century novels by women writers it becomes glaringly apparent that there has been a sea change in attitude about heartbreak. The sufferings of unrequited love are portrayed as noble and romantic and lofty in most fiction of the era. Even in the golden age of Hollywood movies, like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, there is a moral elevation ascribed to those who endure a broken heart. Suddenly, there’s the woman’s movement and we have Fatal Attraction and love sickness is now dangerous and self indulgent and indicative of a lack of character. We want and we should strive for relationships that we cherish so much that their cessation would result in heartbreak but we have no patience for those with broken hearts.

When I was in college we watched again and again the film The Story of Adele H, based on the true story of Victor Hugo’s daughter who driven mad by impossible love, ends her days filthy haired in a wretched asylum. We started a whit fund. “Whit,” is like the sound of a match igniting a flame. Whitting is stuff like arranging “accidental” meetings or calling and hanging up on (in the days before caller i.d.) the subject of an obviously doomed relationship. Penalties paid into the fund were based on the gravity of the infraction and if we’d had any integrity about ponying up we all would have had enough to fly to Europe.

Spuds tells me about spending the night at a friend’s and hearing the parents arguing in the middle of the night. His friend confessed that his parents seemed destined for divorce. “What would you say about our marriage?” I ask him and he reports that he considers it good. “You guys argue sometimes but it’s always about really stupid stuff.”

My own parents divorced when I was seven. In the San Fernando Valley of 1963, this was an aberration and I was a curiosity, cross examined by friends and their parents. I visited homes where the mom and dad and kids all sat down together for dinner and felt a sad longing. But, when I was about 13, around 1970, all hell broke loose in the valley and suddenly the families whose togetherness had made me so wistful began to disintegrate and mothers traipsed off to lesbian weaving communes and fathers packed up for Sedona with blonde undergrads. I find myself the divorced parents maven but I can’t imagine what good advice I could possibly have had to proffer.

We inevitably will do lots of things to screw up our kids but I know our good marriage will help counteract some of the harm we unwittingly inflict. I moan and groan about Himself’s profound weirdness. He suffers in silence my self righteousness and control freak fussiness as I have no “husband cancellers” to shield him from my wrath should he wish to enumerate his issues. It is the final night of a brutal teaching schedule which marks the beginning his eight week sabbatical. I am delighted by this prospect, practically walking on air, but when I mention this he just grouses that it’s not long enough. We’ve duked out stuff like this out for over twenty years but nevertheless have built something substantial considering that all we really had in common before we started breeding was a perverse sense of humor and preternatural curiosity.

I am in bed and Gary the cat is on my stomach. I say to him, “I wish Daddy would come home,” (An aside here, and a bit of advice based on my experience with my mother, if you refer to yourself as Mommy or Daddy to the cat do not tell your human child that the cat is her sibling.) and at that instant I hear the front door open. I will add that this was within the twenty minute frame during which he ordinarily returns and I do not ascribe any magical powers to the cat unless dropping a partially disemboweled living rat on our bed at three a.m. counts. Himself performs his nightly ablutions and having wound up a particularly trying semester is about as light as he gets. It has taken me twenty years of astute observation to be able to discern between lightness and his usual state.

We curl together in the bed as we do every night and every night in that moment between wakefulness and sleep, no matter how shitty the day has been, if I could be anyone in the universe, I would be me. He has the friggin socks on again but still, I know that if he left me I’d go all Adele H for sure.

Shabbat Shalom


FionnchĂș said...

One added benefit of wife-cancellers is that I don't have to hear the likes of "Nurse Jackie"; I have heard your acerbic litanies of woe long before the arrival of my iPod and as I type this the table has already been set, sloppily by your exacting standards.

I finished this week an essay by Walter Kirn. He had to read for high school "Catcher in the Rye" in '75 while the counterculture finally hits his Great Plains burg. He tells of the chaos of broken families, drugs, and decay that swept his hamlet. He reflects on the contrast between his pals and the prep school sophisticate who threw away the East Coast privileges utterly foreign and unattainable by the likes of him. (But he did wind up at Princeton and then the NY Times Book Review!) I read the novel that same school year, unassigned, out by the handball courts after classes ended.

I have been pondering this moral delay, as charismatic Catholics infiltrated, "Godspell" blared, and nuns sponsored journal-keeping workshops and attempts at full-body relaxation (by breathing only, ok?) in my similarly removed milieu. The divorces, teen pregnancies, and general dissolution must have more slowly followed, delayed I bet among Catholic commoners probably more than how long it took "Love American Style" to jump over the hills to conquer the Mid-Valley.

That's an interesting phenomenon for another blog piece for you: the balance sheet of what the feminists with their 59 cents buttons won or lost; Iran's ministers today fulminated how the spate of quakes can be blamed on miniskirts and their resultant promiscuity, although even in dimly recalled memories from that era, many women wearing such hemlines should not have if they expected to attract a mate, at least not a lesbian weaver. xxx me

P.S. Why must you, ordinarily so punctilious about language, stubbornly refer to saucers and desert plates? As I nag my students, spell-check won't save you.

Layne said...

In an earlier e-mail I used "loose" instead of "lose" and here I will stand my use of "desert" for "dessert" in order that my beloved can yet again display his superior mastery of the English language. Still he couldn't manage a trip to Trader Joes with a gun at his temples...