Is There a Downside to Beauty?

The legend tells us that King Midas, given a choice of any reward in the world, requested “the golden touch.The fulfillment of his wish left him overjoyed. Everything at hand could be turned to gold!

When dinner arrived, however, the greedy regent discovered a downside. The food, once meeting his flesh, became the inedible precious metal.

He starved to death.

With Midas as an example, we might ask ourselves what becomes of those who receive another much wished-for gift: beauty.

The upside is well-known: attention, popularity, crowds of suitors, and more. Data suggest this group gets higher ratings on a wide range of characteristics. More social and career doors are thought to open, too.

The challenges of being adorable receive less comment. Here are a few of the problems attached to living inside a lovely face or form. Not every such individual suffers them all, but please imagine I’m talking about you.

  • Start with stereotyping. Think of golden curls atop your head. Some will suppose you are foolish, scatterbrained, and insubstantial. Thoughtless discounting of your loftier attributes must be overcome, at least in the USA.
  • What happens when you speak? Will your voice and words alter your appeal? Might dullness downsize the appraisal?
  • Acquaintances sometimes think physical charm places the lucky one at the front of every line. Such onlookers suppose your innate power to enchant obliterates all obstacles. They misunderstand your life.
  • Jealousy follows from the idea of “unearned rewards.” Some conclude your professional achievement came because of a “special relationship” with a supervisor or boss. Sexual harassment and gossip remain a hazard for all women.
  • If you are introverted, the buzz of attraction you create might overwhelm and fatigue you. The world expects you to be delighted to mingle among multiple eyes and swiveling heads. Refusal to attend group events can label you as rude or “stuck-up.
  • The potency of physical allure lays a trap for the gorgeous. Shall you depend on your attractiveness alone to generate a satisfying life? Perhaps you can prosper without much education, wit, or humanity – for a while. You would do better to recognize your season comes – and goes.
  • Aging for the comely one, when her self-image depends too much on the mirror’s reflection, carries dreaded anticipations of future invisibility. The male gaze includes no lifetime guarantee. Cosmetic surgery can slow but not stop the clock. The battle with a younger self is unwinnable.
  • A life graced by a perfect “package” does not eliminate all the hurdles and heartbreaks suffered by homo sapiens. Work, dating, friendship, athletics, and raising children offer satisfaction, but also potential woe. This fact remains unknown to those who think your angelic wings lift you beyond everyday travail.

  • Comparisons abound. You will be compared to your friends and offspring by the friends and offspring themselves. Observers note the pecking order in any lineup and coworkers join in the chorus of the judges and the judged. Many will name you a blessing, some a complication to their place in the world.
  • Your life as an object of desire means categorization as a competitor. The insecure will be troubled by your presence. If you divorce, do not expect your position within your community of friends to go unaffected. You are now a threat.
  • The exquisiteness of a woman both enhances and complicates the search for a mate, scares some men off, and causes commodification by the players. The role of a trophy – shiny, polished, and metallic – won’t keep you warm inside.
  • All of us understand society through the lens of personal experience. With enough time and interaction with people, we begin to fathom those who are different from us.
  • The magnetic life of a radiant creature presents her with the task of grasping the psychological state of peers who sit below the radar she never escapes herself. Since ravishing visions are always in short supply, those who are “easy on the eyes” tend to lack a confidant who identifies with being “the fairest of them all.

Even if you are a member of the club I’ve described here, you needn’t fit my description. On balance, it is thought far better to be attractive than not, just as it is preferable to be the tallest candidate for President of the USA. He wins the popular vote in most elections.

Few of us would turn down a pleasing combination of body and brain. I’m not suggesting you should. But when we think of the best-looking mermaids in our pool, perhaps we might recall they occasionally envy our safety from fishermen and their hooks.

—–

The three images above are publicity photos sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Ingrid Bergman picture was used to promote her 1944 MGM movie Gaslight, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Next comes Joan Crawford in a 1936 shot taken by George Hurrell. Finally, Dorothy Malone as captured in 1956 by Universal International Pictures.

Thinking About the Erotic Leap in a World Without Touch

The human world is aching. Hands and shoulders and skin are beyond reach. We have awakened to a sensual world in flight, moving at least six feet away.

What would you give for a handshake or a hug, a kiss independent of memory, arousal satisfied by a hand not yours. Perhaps you recall your head resting over another’s heart, hearing the life pulse, moved by the rise and fall of breath.

There are fleshly palms I’d like to surround, soft cheeks to brush past, downcast heads to lift in my hands. I’d spread high-fives all around, eyes close up, too.

Our on-guard stance against illness doesn’t permit either the comfort or intensity we seek in embracing. Our passions are chilled, bottled-up, beaten down. The perspiration of the skin almost asks permission to release itself.

We are amid a famine, even we lucky ones who remain nourished by food and don’t live alone. We want the bodies, the faces, the nearby smiles we lack. Artificial substitutes are earth-bound and distant, no matter that man was not meant to be alone.

We make do. The voices speak on phones across the world. Masks hide faces speeding through stores. Proximity is shunned. The Zoom-altered space-time continuum offers lips that move … followed by broken, inhuman sounds. If space aliens appeared, immune from our looming affliction, we would surrender and rush into their strange arms … all five of them.

I once treated a woman so starved for affection, she coupled with a canine. I believed her at the time but now understand her more.

We want sex, no mistake. But I heard many female patients talk about their need to be held – just held, including those with a regular bed partner. It is worth remembering what one hears on the battlefield among the wounded. They call not to lovers but to mothers.

Humans survived because love and care and emotional intimacy signified more than lovemaking. The buttons to such responses overlap the erotic zone, but one can also be mistaken for the other.

The sex of things is not solely dependent upon what catches the eye. It can be kindness or words or a voice or a gentle touch as much as security or a reminder of someone else. No wonder we experience the presence of erotic transference in the therapist’s office.

We are befuddled creatures, we humans: confusing and confused, less rational than we’d like to believe, unable to predict our feelings far ahead of the present. Kirkegaard acknowledged this truth:Life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward.Backward, indeed, but not always grasped even then.

In 1900 the average life expectancy for men in the USA was 46.3 years. People laughed at home and made love at home. They gave birth, got sick, and died at home.

The cycle of life had many witnesses. Death made his place in the next room, overheard in an unfair wrestling match, an unbeatable competitor you recognized. Those people knew what we have been reminded of.

Perhaps hellos and goodbyes meant more in those days. No planes eased the route to reunion. Travel required time and patience. Letters were sent by snail mail while the writer lived, many arriving when he or the reader or both were dead.

Now we recognize (or should admit) “next time” is a wish without guarantee, a blessing when fulfilled. We’ve sobered up from a mass delusion of early death as an oddity, a fantasy never bothering to say goodbye. It left too many the parting gift of the grim reaper’s embrace.

The lessons of our ancestors need relearning. Catastrophe has a way of forcing its muscular arms around us. Remember that when all the unhugged-hugs – the ones pressing out from the prison of your skin – finally emerge from captivity.

Like Times Square at the end of WWII, when strangers swept each other into their arms, the reborn world will discover our reconstituted virginal state.

Our mundane existence will be reenchanted.

There are simple things worth waiting for.

—–

The three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. First comes The Embrace by Auguste Rodin, then William Adolph Bouguereau’s Admiration (Cupid). The final artwork is Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress.

Finding Trust Without Guarantees

In village days a scoundrel couldn’t conceal his character for a month. But today every time I take my car to the garage or have a prescription filled, I have to trust people I don’t know about things I don’t understand.

Those comments were made over 60 years ago by Huston Smith, a transcendent philosopher of morality and religion. His statement remains valid today. Where does this leave the wisest and most secure of us, not to mention those for whom trust is a luxury of someone else’s unimaginable life?

Smith found reason to believe in many of his fellow-men. He sought those who wrote about virtue and, more crucial, those who lived it.

He knew iniquity exists, as did those he spoke with, but is not the whole of existence.

All of us suffer betrayal. An ex-patient I’ll call by the initials KF told me a tale of uncommon cruelty.

KF was a college student out West during the Vietnam War, before the volunteer army. He commuted to school from home. The husky, black-haired young man was free from military service so long as he remained in good academic standing and carried a full course load.

His father, who abused this fellow when he was small, now charged him rent for shelter and food. Though my client managed the tuition, the old man offered no consideration on living expenses.

Knowing he was at risk of eviction, KF dropped out of school. The military came for him.

During combat in Southeast Asia, KF escaped physical injury, but letters home went unanswered. Once home, he discovered his father had thrown away or sold everything he owned.

Nonetheless, he surmounted the challenge of finding love and making a family better than the one from which he came.

Not all of us are as afflicted as my former patient, but we share his hope of intimacy. James Baldwin recognized the desire and the risky necessity of letting down our guard to get it:

Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Yet so many of us do go without – without companionship, absent a confidant, and lacking at mate. Some believe the world wouldn’t care if we disappeared from its face.

Anonymity seems the better choice if your pattern is to encounter bullies and the unfaithful. Thieves, narcissists, alcoholics, and abusers possess their own imperfect radar attuned to human vulnerabilities.

Some people hesitate to trust because they have no confidence in their capacity to distinguish the dangerous from the safe. This leaves them writing-off all of humanity or attempting to obtain information from every possible source, as if diligent detective work guaranteed discovery of unquestionable virtue.

Neither approach works. The former souls inhabit a cloud of ignorance and take a stance of perpetual defense. The latter never find “the truth” because they seek endless data, never realizing there will always be a sliver of doubt.

Both types of individuals remain isolated or disguised, little better than existing in a bunker far from anything but momentary ease. Both are exhausted by near-constant scanning for the self-interested and evil. They suffer preoccupation with misgivings over incidental events others forget.

Because they skate past those who might give them respect and kindness, the negative experiences of their life do not find a counterweight on the other side of the scale to persuade them intimacy is worth the risk.

Everything they believe confirms the danger of mankind. They also discount their own value to those few they acknowledge could merit knowing.

There are no perfect people, no purity even among those who give their lives for others or their country. We all hold to our self-interestedness in no small part of our behavior. Such quality enables us to survive.

In his 1788 essay Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

He and the men whose thoughts inform the U.S. Constitution knew they were not to be found either in government or out.

Nonetheless, our necessary concern for our well-being still permits the possibility of understanding and decency. Humans pull through because of the ability to join together, trust each other, and benefit from the comfort, love, and security they provide and receive from others.

Disappointment in relationships is inevitable. Those you fear may well also be disappointed by your words or conduct. Avoidance or rejection of available friends or lovers can inflict the equivalent injury on them you wish to avoid for yourself.

These challenging times present the opportunity to discover the best and worst of our brethren and the identical characteristics in ourselves.

No guarantees come with a new relationship. Remember this, however. The person who represents to you the potential for connection also looks for the same fulfillment himself.

Perhaps he even searches for it because of the qualities he recognizes in you.

—–

The three photographs are the work of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://twitter.com/lhedien?lang=en. The first is of Mountain Reflections Near Salt Lake City in January 2020. Next comes A Lightening Storm With Stars Above in Western New Mexico. Finally, Factory Butte, Utah, 2019.

For the Curious and the Brave

Are you an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist? Are you curious? Are you brave?

Think of your life as a challenging but unique voyage. Just as we find ourselves in the churn of a pandemic, so others we call heroes endured and survived their own dangers.

Take the ever-resourceful Odysseus (Ulysses) in Homer’s Odyssey.

The 10-year Trojan War is over. Ulysses and the men of his isle-domain proceed home to Ithaca. The warrior soon angers the sea god Poseidon. The fleet is taken off course, all but his own ship destroyed.

The journey home will match the length of the siege of Troy.

Can our protagonist “bend history” as it is happening?

Observe his encounter with a set of lovely-voiced, lute-playing enchantresses. Odysseus has been warned of them by the sorceress Circe.

First you will raise the island of the Sirens; those creatures who spellbind any man alive, whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens‘ voices in the air – no sailing home for him, no happy children beaming up at their father’s face. The high, thrilling song of the Sirens will transfix him, lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones. ...

The greathearted leader discerned more than caution in Circe’s advice. He recognized a chance to listen to songs so lovely they would make him oblivious to the danger of mindless drowning.

In effect, he wondered whether he might find a way to have his cake and eat it!

Ulysses directed his crew to plug their ears with beeswax, as his advisor suggested. All but his own.

He ordered the men to lash him to the ship’s mast and ignore whatever ravings and directions he shouted until they were past the singers’ reach.

The crisis revealed an opportunity for Odysseus. Our own challenges are less fantastic, but perhaps not less mindless. The times require the best of ourselves for ourselves and the fraternity of our fellow humans.

We can weep the fate of flash-frozen, aborted plans. Many are deserving of tears. But, our wits have not been lost. If we can keep them, and benefit from luck, sound judgment, and those who take risks on our behalf, calmer waters may yet appear.

Ulysses had no guarantee of achieving his goal of reaching his loved ones, but a god bent on frustrating him. He survived to attain Ithaca, embrace his wife Penelope, reunite with his aged father, and clutch his grown son Telemachus for the first time. Moreover, he regained his kingdom.

Though the resourceful one was no longer a young man, Alfred Lord Tennyson imagined him speaking of leaving home once more with vessel and company of sailors:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses’s desire to leave home once again is the English poet’s invention. It is not present Homer’s original tale. Indeed, the Ithacan had wept for Penelope more than once during their separation.

Why might the poet’s version of Odysseus wish to depart for further adventures?

Did he regret giving up the offer of immortality, love, and comfort proposed by the beautiful Calypso? Might his nature simply have been restless? Did this “master of exploits” hunger for attaching more glory to his name and legend?

Perhaps the camaraderie of his Greek companions in wartime made him most alive. Or he felt empty except when the Sirens shared their melody.

Decide for yourself. But whatever you believe, your immediate task remains this:

Find the music in your confined life.

Even now.

The first image is Ulysses and the Sirens by Léon Belly. Next comes The Sirens (1872) by Gustave Moreau followed by Odysseus and the Sirens by Otto Greiner. The same title describes the Attic Red-figured Stamnos, ca. 480-470 BC (a type of Greek pottery used to store liquids). All were sourced from Wikiart.org/

What Do Therapists Dream About?

I found myself in my office. A couple of men walked past, removing the metal file cabinets full of patient records.

Names, birthdates, and notes. All the descriptions and observations, what they said, the way they said it. Outsized lives crammed into tiny words, into pages crammed into files, into hardened enclosures requiring a key for the locks.

People of emotion and disappointment and heartbreak. Joy and progress, too. Jobs, romance, decisions errant and expert. Fathers and grandparents and lovers, hellos and goodbyes.

Precious, each one.

The laborers put the compacted, enclosed cases of cases on handcarts. My efficient and conscientious office manager stared.

“What’s happening, Lynette?” No words. The men worked on.

I was close to retirement. I knew I wouldn’t be in the clinic for long, nor seeing patients and taking notes. Not looking into their eyes and hearing their laughter. Not buying more tissues to catch their tears.

I stopped the men. I told them to retrieve the paper mountains and put them in place.

They did.

Interpretations anyone? Many possibilities. Here’s one.

These records were not the lives of my clients, but the material evidence of the caravan of humanity passing my way. If lives were lines on a graph, my time with them would be like the point of intersection between their lifeline and mine.

When our contact was productive, the trajectory of their path changed.

They’d touched me and, for some, vice versa. The sheaves were the remnants of my vocation to help, enlighten, and open them to a new life: rewrite the words to their story.

No one else had the same relationship with them when I did. Now, no one else could read their tale without their permission.

Why did I have this dream as the pandemic closed in?

Did the workmen represent a virus-like invasion? Was my defensive stance a symbol for the protection of my family, friends, and all the ones I loved?

Did I fear the virus sweeping them away, as the blue-collar workers intended with pushcarts and trucks?

An old teaching cliche applies to dream divination: there are no right or wrong answers. Someone else, perhaps, will compile a book of COVID-19 sleep-befogged meanings.

Dream interpretation is like listening to a recitation of religious scripture. No two people hear the same message, as if the words, their order, and the language change while floating in the air.

The viral moment persuades me that if we lived a life of infinite length, we would also live every possible life, dream all dreams, meet every person, and write all the books that shall ever be written and read.

The full moon woke me, seemingly summoned to dispel the nightmare and enchant the night. Better to conjure sweet silent dreams than my professional dystopia. No witches and warlocks and werewolves. No cabinets spirited away by strangers.

Let me craft what is possible on our now slumbering globe: dreams of action and improvement, agency and creation.

Join me.

Daniel Burnham said, “Make no small plans.”

—–

The top image is described as Logistics of Watsons Distilled Water, 12 Bottles in Yau Ma Tei Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong. It is the work of Leideomangeos.

The second image is the Lorry of a Paper Shredding Company, 2006. It was taken on March 24, 2006 in Central London by Edward.

Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What the Coronavirus Taught Me About Love

When I practiced therapy, I reminded myself to bring intensity to my work. Every day, every hour.

Each patient was a kind of wayfarer. His journey had reached a sticking point. He was faltering with sadness, loss, or anxiety, guilt or helplessness.

A bit like a pilgrim, the searcher hoped to find a balm for the soul.

Life brings routine. We create routines to make it easier, more efficient, to avert the wasteful reinvention of our daily tasks.

But routine deadens, too. A therapist must make the work fresh.

The healer must be present, concentrate, note the body language, and not offer words far from the point, missing the point. I tried to give each meeting “life.I didn’t always succeed. No one can, but the next time my patient visited offered another chance to join him in searching out an oasis: a green, peaceful, and certain place, where refreshment might bring renewal.

The aging of my parents brought home the recognition it always does. One never knows when the last time will be. The twilight handshake, the final moment of laughter, the embrace of someone we love.

I made sure to part from my folks with an “I love you.Now my children and grandchildren do this with their parents and grandparents.

These parting words are never enough by themselves. The pandemic tells me so. Its voice calls out, “There is more to do.

Why do I hear this now? Because I can’t do more, I am separated from so many, as you are. What, then, does “more” mean when the opportunity comes?

The voice did not say.

Here’s my answer.

The heartbreak of a goodbye must be balanced by delight in a hello. We must treat each new contact as a gift, greet the friend or lover, the father or a brother as though it were the first time: the moment we discovered something unique in him. Graceful, beautiful, kind — it does not matter. Strong, faithful, wise — whatever are the qualities embedded within him.

We need to try to sum up the other’s every sacrifice for us, all the touching words they said to us, their thoughts and prayers for us and approach him anew. With gratitude.

In another dreadful historical moment, Abraham Lincoln said, “we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.

The virus teaches us the day is short, no matter how long the sunshine lasts. The message is the same, regardless of the time or place. Since we do not have eternity, the moment and the people must be grasped, held close.

If we safeguard ourselves and others, and if we are lucky, a reunion yet will come.

When you see loved ones again, remember: speed to them as if it were the first time and the last time, every time.

—–

The photos above come courtesy of Laura Hedien, a gifted and generous photographer. They are The Look and Splashes. Much more of her work can be found at: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

 

 

In Search of a Rescuer: Where Erotic Transference and Politics Intersect

Most of us have hoped, early or late in life, for someone to “make it better.” Children want this when they fall. They need to believe instant magic is possible, and often it is. A smile, a hug, or a kiss can be enough. We are social creatures looking for connection, sensual and emotional.

When illness is serious, medical professionals are asked for their form of hocus pocus. Those people possess specialized knowledge. The name for it is “health care.” A proper physician communicates his expertise, but the care, as well.

Those with injuries to the soul seek a specific category of treatment: psychotherapy. You might be the perfect physical being, beautiful and whole except for the unseen pain of twisting emotion and turbulent thought. But, you ask, how much can another human do when no surgery or potion fixes what isn’t working?

Should the attempt to help succeed, admiration for the one who helped tends to follow. Sometimes before aid occurs.

The idea of a protector is potent and easily sexualized. “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the old Gershwin song goes. There are moments in life when we call out for such a knight or sorceress to summon the daylight.

The problem, though, is that life’s manufacture of dilemmas doesn’t stop. The factory assembly line can be unkind. Joys and sorrows are randomly generated. Nor does love offer a permanent cure-all.

The nourishment given by passionate and abiding affection helps with many problems, within limits. The lover (or potential partner) can offer only one hand when you find yourself in the soup of struggle. The other he needs to keep himself afloat. Lasting sorcery available 24/7 is in short supply.

If the therapy client searches for a deliverer or a romance in the counselor’s office, desire gets in the way of the best the therapist can provide: for the patient to rescue himself with expert and sensitive help.

The doctor’s assistance does not demand his becoming a brawny stretcher-bearer throughout the client’s life. Instead, the latter learns to take on present challenges and get past his past to make his way.

To do so, our wounded hero must allow (in small doses) uncomfortable emotions access to his heart. Similarly, he begins to permit uneasy topics and memories admittance to his thoughts. Taking responsibility for recovery requires behavioral changes, too; actions he hesitates to try. New and more workable ideas will disentangle the ones binding him if he recognizes their mirage of false security and unties them.

Some argue there is a benign supernatural healer in an afterlife, but I don’t know anyone who claims he now walks the earth. Some of us do, however, mistake mortal beings for more than they are. Thus, no matter the gifts of the therapist, he is not, by himself, the answer.

Current politics reflects this problem. Close to half of the United States thinks they’ve found their savior, a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Nothing short of a no-holds-barred holy terror will save them, they believe.

The other 50% hopes a nobler protector is yet to come. The latter group has been disappointed in people with names like Mueller and fears there is no other metaphorical wolf-slayer at hand.

Here, as well, many who wait and dream make the same error as some counseling clients. The hoped-for wizard in the office is like the fictional Wizard of Oz, just another man. The heavy lifting of well-being will require the muscle of those who lift themselves. The psychologist might suggest a path and a pace, display encouragement and understanding, but no more.

Neither a passive role in counseling nor remaining inactive until election day will accomplish a rescue, whether it be from personal despair or a case of national turmoil.

In 1867 John Stuart Mill put the governmental situation this way:

Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

It is often quoted in these words:

The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Whether the worthy man or woman is a therapy patient or a nervous citizen in a shaky republic, he is tasked with principled action to effect the change he wants.

Postcard and letter writing, marching and registering voters, phone calls and donations wait for us only for a while. Energy enacted creates its own source of energy, confidence, hope, and a sense of control: steps in the defeat of passivity, dependency, and worry.

Walt Kelly’s old Pogo comic strip told us “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

If the cartoonist were working today he might prefer this, a remedy of which each of us should remind ourselves:

I have met my rescuer and I am he.

November Anniversaries

This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.

A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.

My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.

I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.

Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.

How might one celebrate his memory?

I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.

No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.

I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.

Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.

The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.

If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.

My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.

In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.

The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.

Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.

Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.

This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.

You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?

I’ll buy just two items.

—–

The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Can the Honeymoon be Saved? The Ultimate Relationship Challenge

If someone tells you what love is, do not believe him.

Thus having given you good reason to ignore me, I shall pretend you’re still reading and provide a possible answer.

First, I’m writing about being “in love” and “swept away,” not a sedate, loving, and less ecstatic attachment. More the honeymoon than the place down the road where engines slow and the fire truck in charge of routine overtakes the couple and douses the flames. Here the dead hand of habit makes an unwelcome appearance.

Before I get to how to forestall that undesirable event, let me speak more about it.

Madness describes the state of new love — “the full crazy.”

Some call it obsession. The idea of the other floods your being with face, form, touch, scent, voice, intelligence, and laughter. Sex, too.

Love makes the world new: everything sparkles. Perception is enhanced, like the change from black & white to colorized, 3-D.

One day ago, you were a sleepwalking, beclouded person. With the sunrise of a new romance, each day is broken open the way a child attacks the gift wrapping on his Christmas presents. You come alive to what it means to be alive.

Love is foolishness and wisdom, silliness and joy, slavery and escape. The bewitched circumstance is so perfect that we make the arrangement a 24-hour cohabitation and risk killing it. “More” is not necessarily better. In a world where we adapt, adjust, do the laundry, and pay the bills, the mundane moves in and makes it a threesome.

Love is falling, but believing you won’t hit the ground. Reason plays little part. Friends question your judgment and warn you. Even astute ten-year-olds witness your rolling eyes. They fear for your safety. Unsolicited words of advice make abstract sense but appeal to a brain taking a smoking break.

This state of euphoria is heedless of tomorrow. One cannot imagine the emotion fading, the beloved aging, troublesome relatives, and quarrels over money. Intensity and gratitude are all.

Whenever amour is the real-deal, you are changed, enlarged. The personal, permanent passport of your existence gets stamped with the name of another, a human possessing an addictive flavor.

Thought alters. You conceive anew what is possible in life because you experienced a sliver of the impossible.

Love, when authentic, inflates your humanity, the capacity to give to another, and the knowledge that the world possesses mountain tops of rapture and well-being. No wonder an abrupt end to this journey rips your insides out.

This glorious condition rarely lasts. Time tends to mold the relationship into a different shape of love. The rip-your-clothes-off, rhapsodic fervor becomes more episodic, a tune you notice less often, assuming it is played at all. Heretofore unseen personality incompatibilities intrude.

The arrival of children enriches a marriage, but also stresses it. For most duos, the grinding of frenzy gives way to the rubbing of friction and familiarity.

Sometimes the marital pair discovers a challenge in their conflicting motivations. People live for love, for the kids, for money and objects, for fame, to live-on in artistic or scientific works, etc. Moving in tandem over a lifetime requires lots of coordination, tolerance of the other, and sacrifice.

Being crazy-in-love doesn’t demand much except a shower and a fresh set of clothes. A life together does.

Much writing offers guidance on perpetuating the enchantment. The list of suggestions includes effort, imagination, surprise gifts, date nights, sexual experimentation, playfulness, and remembering why you fell in love. Kindness, apology, and respect are essential, as is an absence of condescension. The therapist, Esther Perel, believes infidelity with the consent of the mate can also enhance the marriage, though I have doubts.

For the candle of courtship to remain lit, both parties must grow and transform. They otherwise offer nothing new to their partner. Boredom out of the bedroom is a killer of passion within it. While renewed love is not so effortless as the new kind, recapturing a time when you were an explorer to an undiscovered country is worth another safari.

Sensitive conversation is required. Some people listen only to fashion a reply. Instead, the husband and wife must hear to understand.

The wise pair benefits from balancing time together and apart, hours without the spouse, and solo interests as well as activities they share.

If the lovers do not bring fresh ideas into their interactions, nearness becomes a dreadful repetition. Each might take comfort knowing every thought before their companion thinks it, but dullness makes an extramarital affair appear enlivening.

I know a magician, a specialist in racing with the moon when not nursing the rabbit in his hat, who conjured a way to keep marital bliss rolling forever. The plan requires the sweethearts to live in different cities and meet every few weeks, traveling back and forth, sometimes to places beyond their homes.

Habit wouldn’t play any part, but a vacation atmosphere of excitement and adventure would. No children were offered a role in the trickster’s equation. He recommended regular phone calls, however. The wizard guaranteed a “Saturday Night Date” aura to every encounter, no matter the place and time.

Of course, few have the resources or vocation to permit this. Moreover, the urge to join together — the want for “more” — still presents an ever-present risk.

Relationships change like everything else in the world. Youthful newlyweds are endowed with a spark but don’t yet possess the history awarded by age alone. Nor do many of us realize the one-we-can’t-get enough-of lacks the magic to make us whole. That heroic task is a never-finished solo assignment.

The clock takes away but also gives. If grating and the sense of imprisonment in a two-person chain-gang are what remains of the dyad’s past ardor, these souls missed a great opportunity.

Yes, long romance always finds its way to conflict. But shared challenges, mutual support, tragedy endured, joyous memories, acceptance of shortcomings, pride and love for offspring, aligned values, and countless moments of tenderness compensate for the diminished presence of the enkindling thing that brought their hearts together.

The lucky older couple has encountered the absurdity of life as a team, sometimes in laughter, sometimes in tears. In the best of cases, their love is now different, in part because of what they lost, in part because they have transcended the honeymoon.

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The images above in the following order: The Family by Gustav Klimt, Upward by Paul Klee, White Line by Kandinsky, the Red Balloon by Paul Klee, and Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (aka In Fronto of a Door) by Modigliani.

 

When Beauty Interferes with Your Life

A therapist learns more about private lives than almost any other professional. Such knowledge informs him of the double-edged nature of many glorious qualities.

Take beauty.

Take beautiful women.

The upside of their charm is well-known: admiring glances, an expansive range of potential suitors, the possibility of marrying into a superior status. People who will do more for you, show you great kindness, pick up what you’ve dropped, and make exceptions for your failings because you dazzle them with bright eyes, a smile, and the symmetrical proportions of your face.

The genetic wheel of fortune blesses some of us, sideswipes others. One does nothing to earn this. Gifts of intellect, athletic talent, and disposition are subject to random distribution, but none more nakedly evident than how you look.

What of the downside of this accident of birth? As the Greek myth of Prometheus relates, we must be wary of a gift received from the gods. Here are a few observations about those complicated presents. One cautionary note: these remarks do not fit every one of those who make men look twice:

A number of the gorgeous ones become accustomed to the unearned advantages bestowed upon them. Some believe they needn’t develop other facets of themselves: education, tenderness, social intelligence, or financial independence, etc. Life demands less, so they give less.

An additional factor contributes to their confidence in a seemingly permanent entitlement. Few can grasp the reality of future unwanted changes to their physicality.

All of us believe advanced age is our destiny, but the idea is an abstraction. The magic mirror, like the one possessed by Snow White’s evil stepmother, reflects an everlasting prime. Time stretches when a rose is in bloom. Its alteration is imperceptible. A different life is unimaginable.

Perhaps we survive as a species because aging long remains at a distance, beyond the horizon, an affliction without application to ourselves.

An enchantress wonders about something else, at least early on: why does he love me? Everyone thinks about the reasons for another’s affection, but a beautiful woman confronts the plausibility her pulchritude alone is paramount.

Along with the power conferred by her sexuality, she regrets that her lover values her without knowing her. Perhaps she is an objectified prize to be displayed beside his most conspicuous trophies; as a testament to his worth and his victories in a chest-pounding macho competition.

The totality of the female as a unique, self-created, moral, emotional, perceiving entity might be obscured by the man’s singular focus on her arresting face and form. The woman’s periodic dismay at the irony of being “unseen the more she is seen” betrays the existence of an invisible depth.

The fetching lady is like a bejeweled well, so breathtaking and artistically constructed on the outside no one thinks to examine what is inside.

I met movie-star-beautiful women whose personalities, wit, imagination, generous humanity, and brains were more impressive and magical than anything else about them. And yet the floodlight of their externals blinded far too many who were already blind to the possibility something more was more important.

If a damsel’s charms are also long-lasting, females share the tendency to discount her strengths.

I recall treating a gynecologist whose appearance suggested early-20s though she was 45. Upon acquaintance, patients did not believe she was a doctor.

Once persuaded, a minority continued to question whether her medical experience justified trusting her. The physician’s presence confronted them with the contradiction between what she was and what she appeared to be.

To the extent one retains youthfulness and allure, an evergreen body postpones the portion of maturational instruction a fading flesh provides. How one adjusts to its transformation and the changing reactions of others to its metamorphosis influences everything else.

Aches and pains aren’t fun, but they are informative. Prolonged youthful skin plays the trick of extending the period in which you can act as you did in your chronological springtime.


Any of us might wish for this blessing, but wisdom is acquired not only by exposure to events and the passage of time. Sages achieve enlightenment, in part, by adjusting to alterations in the package containing their soul.

A significant number of good-looking members of the fair sex find relationships with their same gender comrades challenging. Rivalry for the male gaze creates unease among possible friends. Would-be chums and colleagues hesitate to stand in the shadow of an apparition more magnificent than the hanging gardens of Babylon.

If these captivating creatures get divorced, married women guard the home turf against the temptation they represent. Dinner and party plans leave the insecure wondering if they would do better not to invite a Trojan horse into their walled dwelling place.

The signs of seniority and declining loveliness inevitably arrive, even when late to the game. The loss of a man’s instinctively turning head is still a loss, however long the delay. Grief is enlarged when self-concept is too dependent upon the vanishing thing.

Comparisons can’t be escaped. For one who caught every eye, she not only measures her effect on neighbors and friends but judges her current self against what she was.

If you are beautiful, you are aware of the downs and ups of nature’s largesse. A sense of well-being is enabled by gratitude for whatever one has. Those women who hang on to their appreciation of the whole of themselves will handle both their sexual objectification and its departure as well as possible.

When considering the beautiful, do remember that the higher they climb on the list of bathing beauty winners, the farther they must fall into the water.

While no one escapes gravity, some qualities defy it. Shoot for the stars with whatever excellences best define you today.

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All of the images above are sourced from the Art Institute of Chicago. The first is Three Beauties of Yoshiwara (1793) by Utamoro. Next comes Madam Pampadour (1915) by Modigliani, followed by Dorothea and Francesca (1898) by Cecilia Beaux. Finally, Two Sisters (On the Terrace) (1881) by Renoir, Bust of an African Woman (1851) by Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, and Celestial Beauty from 8th century India.