Sunday, June 28, 2009

real love

Yes, yes.  This is the article I have been waiting for that perfectly explains why I look for love outside of the hyper-educated liberal elite that I am a part of.  RISK.  PASSION.  LUNACY.  That is what makes love so grand.  Not the companion-ship bullshit currently being played out in sunday brunches across the nation and at IKEA.  FUck.  

I knew something was wrong and leave it to the NY Times to FINALLY figure it out.  Because they themselves ARE the hyper educated liberal elite, they are a bit slow on trends and only 5 years down the line get it right.  Iraq war, slow food, and Kristof wrote about polluted water supply the other day.  When I was talking about, way back when, I was called paranoid.  But things slowly take their turn in America.  

Obama is compilation of everything that has come before.  The country truly responds and changes, albeit slowly, but it comes around and is not tied to any dogma.  At heart, we are a practical people, and if it don't work, we are game to fix it.  Health care is coming around.  And eventually so will all the other irrational and unjust policies out there.  We have been pushed to the brink.  And there is no better time to be American, and to be a part of all these changes.  I see them clearer in the distance.  

The times, they are a changin.  

I still loathe Americans, don't get me wrong.  We got a long way to go.  Especially culturally.  The hyper pragmatism is daunting and completely uncool.  It gets things done, though so do sweatpants.  But like Seinfeld says, if you wear sweatpants outside the house, you might as well say you've given up.  For Americans, what they have given up is:  The good life.  

Time to be a dignified Empire, worthy of emulation.  Step it up, come on, the world depends on us, if you haven't realized already. 


It's been a good month for reckless romance in America. The nation's most famous reality-television father, Jon Gosselin of "Jon and Kate Plus Eight," threw over his marriage for a fling with a 23-year-old schoolteacher. Not one but two prominent conservative politicians torpedoed their careers with public confessions of adultery — with Mark Sanford's Argentine disappearing act eclipsing John Ensign's accusation of extortion against his lover's spouse.

These irrepressible passions make a fascinating counterpoint to the complaint, advanced this month by two of the nation's finest essayists, that modern relationships have been drained of danger and purged of eros.

In her new polemic "A Vindication of Love," an assault on the idea of safety in romance, Cristina Nehring complains that contemporary couplings have so restrained true passion that "the poor beast has become as impotent as it is domestic." In a post-divorce essay for The Atlantic, Sandra Tsing Loh autopsies not only her own marriage but those of her peers, a cohort of middle-aged Los Angelenos who've let the quest for security turn them into sexless drudges.

Both writers depict a country where pragmatic anxieties — think of the children! think of the mortgage! — are forever trumping romance and dulling the libido. Theirs is a nation of nesters who have clipped their own wings.

So which is the real America? Is it Tsing Loh's dystopia, where everyone "works" grimly on their relationships, and post-feminist husbands happily cook saffron-infused porcini risotto but rarely practice seduction on their wives? Or is it tabloid country: The land of Jon minus Kate, and governors who vanish to "hike the Appalachian Trail" — not to mention gossip-column fixtures like Britney Spears (rumored last week to be contemplating her third marriage in six years) and the mistress-parading Mel Gibson?

One possible answer is that our stars and politicians are a species apart — more impulsive and incautious than the average Dick and Jane, and more libidinous as well.

But the evidence suggests the opposite. The high-wire love lives of a Jon Gosselin or a Mark Sanford — or a Spears, or even a Lindsey Lohan — are remarkably true to the America that watches their shows, buys their CDs, and votes them into office. It's the highly-educated, highly risk-averse milieu lamented by Nehring and Tsing Loh that's a world unto itself.

Their complaints about this world's romance deficit are substantially overstated, obviously — and shot through with a dash of self-justification. (Tsing Loh had an affair; Nehring recently became an unwed mother.) But both do put their finger on a post-sexual revolution paradox — namely, that the same overclass that was once most invested in erotic experimentation ended up building the sturdiest walls against the passions it unleashed.

As Nehring observes, our hyper-educated, socially-liberal elite is considerably more romantically conservative than its blasé attitude toward pornography or premarital sex would lead you to expect. The difficult scramble up the meritocratic ladder tends to discourage wild passions and death-defying flings. For bright young overachievers, there's often a definite tameness to the way that collegiate "safe sex" segues into the upwardly-mobile security of "companionate marriages" — or, if you're feeling more cynical, "consumption partnerships."

This tameness has beneficial social consequences: When it comes to divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births, Americans with graduate degrees are still living in the 1950s. It's the rest of the country that marries impulsively, divorces frequently, and bears a rising percentage of its children outside marriage. Indeed, if you're looking for modern-day Percy Shelleys or Mary Wollstonecrafts (to pluck a pair of Nehring's romantic risk-takers), you're more likely to find them in Middle America than among the environmental lawyers and documentary filmmakers who populate Tsing Loh's depressing social world.

Better, perhaps, if this dynamic were reversed. Our meritocrats could stand to leaven their careerism with a little more romantic excess. (Though such excess is more appropriate in the young, it should be emphasized, than in middle-aged essayists and parents.) But most Americans, particularly those of modest means, would benefit from greater caution and stability in their romantic entanglements.

Maybe this reversal could start with some creative matchmaking across lines of class and politics. The dutiful, somewhat-boring husbands from Sandra Tsing Loh's Los Angeles, for instance, sound like ideal soulmates for Kate Gosselin, the soon-to-be-single mother of eight.

And as for Cristina Nehring, who can't live without being "derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired and unsettled by love" — well, maybe someone should introduce her to Mark Sanford.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

scenes from a marriage (of Heaven and Hell)

"What if I turned you on with a button and made you happy, would you want it just as much baby?  Would you enjoy it just as much?"

Two reasons for a failing relationship:  

1.  We're Different

2.  It's (one of ) our fault(s)

1.  I acknowledge difference, unlike most people who feel we are all part one big happy human family.  If I indulge in, what people consider, hyper-generalizations, it's mostly an effort to navigate through difference, not allowing it to come in the way of our common goals, aspirations, dreams.  

This requires study and commitment, to languages and culture, travel and those unmeasured nights of revelry where the stars and sky take on a deeper meaning.

But first, we must accept that we are different, in ways that matter.  Differences are overcome if the love is there.

2.  So, it's (one of) our fault(s)

Rings true, and works well with my American self-reliant upbringing.  Blame yourself.  Accept responsibility.  But when passion and magic are lacking, it's hard to have your heart in a plan; feels mechanical and forced.  Sometimes our acumen of organization and go-getting, can land us in a lifeless relationship.  One can adjust to anything if one tries hard enough.    

The fundamental question becomes:  Do you feel it?  But what am I suppose to feel?  Sexual passion, respect for the other person, a feeling of awe as the light of their inner and outer beauty bathes me in ecstasy?  

Yes, yes, and yes, if that is how you want to live and be.  How alive do you want to be?  How much can you handle before it tips fatally into the "Anna Karenina" realm.  

Beautiful, passionate, irrational women are riveting as much as they are dangerous.  That is what attracts us to them.  Their capacity to both create and destroy, that balance and uncertainty, is what turns us on.  


After awhile we become tired and old, and then we look to someone we can build a life with; pay the bills with.  A very different form of love grows; the loves of comfort and certainty.  The joys of bearing beautiful fruit; children and careers, and a home in the world.  

Can a man have both?

What was founded on recklessness and irrationality, can it grow into taking on the very serious conditions of human existence; War; poverty; suffering; death?

"I'm a warrior baby.  I believe stronger in the fight, then our love.  You feel uncomfortable that I believe in a truth so strongly, that I can kill for it?    

But not believing is believing; in nothingness and nihilism.  

You were my joy, my salvation, for those dark and quiet nights, after a hard day's work.  Someone understood me, and beauty filled my life, as if I had plucked the most precious flower from the garden of Eden, whose fragrance bloomed only for me, forging my soul, renewing my strength and faith for the good fight.  You made it all make sense.  You saved me from selfishness, cruelty and a bitter life nursed by Jack Daniels and Marlboro Reds.  

Though slowly this flower began to whither in my arms.  And though I was made of the same element as the Earth, from which she came; wind, rain and fire; there was nothing I could do to bring her back to me.  She was gone"

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Joy of Less

The Joy of Less

"The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles." The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen," though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.

I'm not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. "There is nothing either good or bad," I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, "but thinking makes it so." I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park

In the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno's arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I'd grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn't buy happiness, I wasn't convinced that money did either.

So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I'd noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I'd imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can't think of a single thing I lack.

I'm no Buddhist monk, and I can't say I'm in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I've written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn't want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I've come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).

When the phone does ring — once a week — I'm thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven't missed much at all. While I've been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or "Walden," the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. "I call that man rich," Henry James's Ralph Touchett observes in "Portrait of a Lady," "who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination." Living in the future tense never did that for me.

I certainly wouldn't recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who

Perhaps happiness, like peace or passion, comes most when it isn't pursued.

have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I'm not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno's arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.

Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I've lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn't pursued.

If you're the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn't where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I'm there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.

[Editor's note: an earlier version of this post included an inaccurate reference to the constitution of Japan. It has since been removed.]