Is Infidelity More Than a Matter of Sex?

One morning Gregor S. realized his wife was more interested in the vacuum cleaner than she was in him. No, not in a perverse way. She simply wanted to keep bugs and dirty things out – everything else in its place – more than sex with her spouse. Priorities were thus arranged. The house was spotless, her marriage immaculate and chaste. Their children, Gregor reminded himself, were the fruits of a different stage of history, when the carnal batteries were juiced; before his wife’s facial expression alone told him, “Don’t even think about it.”

Frau Samsa began the romance with the promise of fidelity and still lived by the letter of her oath: no other man enjoyed her charms. The husband, however, expected ranking ahead of cleaning supplies.

Sex was like a Christmas toy, the thing you once raced downstairs for, soon consigned to a dusty closet shelf. When those bygone fleshly episodes came to mind, Mr. S. alternated among moods of wistful remembrance, moments of serious conversation with his beloved, and angry comments.  Temporary changes resulted, as fleeting as sound and smoke, to paraphrase Goethe.

When had this metamorphosis in his bedroom occurred, he wondered? What was Greg to do now?

The master masturbated, immediate service always at hand. His eyeballs scanned internet pornography, a turn-on without risk of rejection: where video women invite touch by anyone watching. Impersonal, of course.

Mr. Samsa did not wish to cheat or pay for sex. The guy wondered, however, whether months of abstinence again qualified him as a virgin.

In the USA, he’d be labeled a cad had he found a mistress. Society would say he had no cause, if it considered cause at all.

I treated more than a few such men. Usually middle-aged. A buddy told me he heard the same story from several guys at our 40th high school reunion. Sadness claimed them more than anger.

Another couple. In their 30s. The wife was gorgeous, saucy, bright. Her husband wasn’t interested enough in the sensual part of their marriage. On the other hand, he played lots of softball, an activity for which he was enthusiastic and energetic. The excuse to this wife? “Gee, I’m too tired now.”

One could make a long list of activities preferred over coupling by the sexually disinterested: intimate time with friends, focus on children, allegiance and availability to parents, church tasks, and work. Even reading. When relationship problems surface (all marriages have them in their course) one partner may say sex must wait until understanding is first achieved. Not always. Sex does, at times, help repair a frayed connection.

Let’s expand the definition of fidelity. My guess is the unstated commitment to another includes conversation, interest, and concentration as well as passion. Respect, tenderness, and devotion, too. Does the word fidelity apply to those who show regular contempt for a partner; neglect or indifference? Does taking the other for granted break the marital promise? Can the failure to defend and support a spouse in society fracture the unwritten covenant? Are loyalty and constancy words only applied to the sex of things?

An ancient Buddhist teaching says there are five ways a husband should minister to his wife:

By honoring her, by not disparaging her, by not being unfaithful to her, by giving authority to her, by providing her with adornments. (From DN 31: Sigãlaka Sutta; III 180-81, 187-91).

The wife has a similar list. Note that sexual fidelity is allowed no prominence.

An affair can happen without premeditation. We look. There is a spark. For a man, the tinder is almost always dry. But, no adultery for heterosexuals is possible in the absence of willing, interested, or instigating women. Once the dalliance is over, the relationship with the spouse might continue as before, assuming there is no revelation of the indiscretion. Meanwhile, other bond-breaking actions can be chronic, more intentional: criticism, humiliation, rejection, avoidance … How do you weigh the physical vs. the emotional, one vs. the other?

Please understand me. My questions are not rhetorical: posed as if I had a definite answer. The domain is complex, the choices agonizing.

Different models of commitment exist beyond the North American heterosexual variety. Among gays, allowance is often made for other physical contacts even in committed relationships. Does this risk throwing-over the partner? I imagine it does, but mostly in an already unsatisfying partnership. I have no data here, so am open to enlightenment from gay readers.

In this uncertain territory I claim certainty about one thing alone: that spouses usually promise more than sexual fidelity when they join; at least if wedlock is driven by love instead of necessity, security, or lust alone.

If you believe extra-marital amour is always unjust, realize a marriage can die in multiple ways, not only that one. The worm in the rose bed takes many forms. Relationships crack when understanding is missing and a partner is lonely: where the chill of an adjacent body is unrelieved, and both magic and kindness have disappeared. Couples therapy only works when each party’s part is faced.

Moral superiority dependent solely on your avoidance of other beds may be a mirage.

The top screen shot comes from the 1950 movie, In a Lonely Place, a Columbia picture starring Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. The photo below is a software-generated landscape created with a program named Terragen, this one the work of Fir0002. Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty-three Things a Man Should Know

The internet is full of lists of the skills a man should master. They are usually offered as advice to the young, uncertain male. Such articles were around in my youth and decades before. The Stoics, in particular, attempted to define what “a man” consisted of. Women need the list of manly tasks as much as men do: the better to bypass those men who don’t have “the right stuff” or any desire to learn more than they know.

I am about to ignore the wise admonition, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and offer you my own list. God help you. Not complete, but more psychological than most. You might have guessed as much. The catalog will focus on urban talents – the things best fit to the city – over rural skills or physical survival abilities, like escaping a bear attack.

Here goes:

  • Learn to tie a Windsor Knot. Most men can’t create a triangular, symmetrical knot in their neck tie. “Not” good.
  • Make eye contact: the kind that shows kind interest. You are paying attention and unafraid. Avoid the scary variety.
  • Be able to tell a clean joke. Practice until you can. Humor is sexy, so I’m told.
  • Know how to lead. If you are waiting for the recognition you deserve – for the crowd to realize a great man is in their midst – you may have time to read an encyclopedia. Raise your hand and take charge.
  • Understand investments. Do not rely on the wisdom of those who want to sell you stocks in return for a commission. Dozens of books exist to guide you. Start with A Random Walk Down Wall Street.
  • Dismiss 80% of what other people say about you, the good and the bad, but recognize the 20% you should take to heart.
  • Learn to shoot a gun. Love or condemn firearm use, as you wish, but do try to enhance your understanding of its discipline and power.
  • Be able to apologize. Don’t be one who regularly blames his failures on others.

  • Practice forgiveness, but not until you’ve dealt fully with the hurt and anger inside.
  • Become adept at giving speeches, toasts, and telling stories. Just you in front of an audience, a form of public nakedness with your clothes on.
  • Don’t merely stand up for yourself, but for something more important than yourself, too. Live your values. Recognize how you fool yourself. Trust me, you do.
  • Give a man’s handshake. Neither squishy nor bone crushing.
  • Childhood is a time to push back your tears. Maturity is a time to permit your eyes to moisten.
  • Learn how to sample and evaluate wine when the waiter presents a bottle to you.
  • Become adept at a sport no later than your entry to school. Best if you choose the most popular team competition in your region. Personal stature is enhanced by this, a standing of benefit for your first 20 years or more. The camaraderie will be cherished for the rest of your life.
  • Drill yourself on keyboarding and cursive writing. You need to communicate. A handwritten letter conveys even more weight, personal consideration, and intimacy than in the time before keyboards.
  • Learn how to do things face-to-face: job interviews, asking someone on a date, returning merchandise. Ending a relationship, too. Don’t hide behind a phone call or, worse still, your email and twitter account.
  • Become proficient in negotiation.
  • Listen to people, not only what they say, but what is not said. Psychological-mindedness must be developed, not assumed. Don’t think, in amazement, “He isn’t logical.”  You are expecting too much of the human race if you do.
  • Practical skills: ironing clothes, cooking, changing a diaper, shuffling cards, buying clothes, etc.
  • Buddies don’t count every nickel when trying for the impossibility of perfect equity over a friendly meal. Make friends and accept their short-comings or tell them the problem.
  • Learn to climb a rope. Once done, you will recognize that what first seems impossible is not.
  • Always keep a serious book in mind.

  • Do not delay your pursuit of women until you “understand” them. Rejection is part of the game and may say more about the rejector than the rejectee. In my clinical practice I encountered many ladies who first deflected a man who would become a mate. Develop resilience in the face of discouragement. Defeat is a facet of every life, except for those who hide behind the barricade.
  • Say I love you. Get to the point of being able to tell people why they matter to you, not just women.
  • Expose yourself to ideas that may not resonate at first. Learn to think critically, read critically, listen critically. If all you know is what you’ve heard – blindly accepted – you know little.
  • Become acquainted with the enormous power of waiting. There are times when people will move toward you because of the magnetic force of your stillness. And silence. Many run from a wild pursuit. Practice patience.
  • Know some expressions in a foreign language. Master in detail at least one area of knowledge beyond your work, sports, and auto racing.
  • Identify your dark side or become its victim. The things you do not acknowledge about yourself will control you.
  • Be able to make small talk.
  • Practice kindness and respect for the worth of every person.

  • Find out about making it and taking it. A man doesn’t always ask permission. The doors of life must be identified and understood. Sometimes they are wide open and friendly. Sometimes they are closed until you knock for attention and advance. Locked portals must be respected or broken down, including those inside of you. Obstacles needn’t deter you from making a claim.

Much of what I’ve written is about a life in the urban West. Were I an Eastern philosopher, the list would be different. But, at least one more Buddhist-influenced suggestion should be added.

  • When you converse with someone about ideas, try to efface your ego: lose your “self.” Listen to the thoughts and speak the thoughts (and their justification) without prejudice or attachment to your position. Permit the logic of your dialogue to be “authorless,” without concern over whose notions will “win.” What I’ve described doesn’t happen much in the places most of us live, but perhaps giving up the necessity of victory is the essential step toward learning something new.

—–

The top painting is A Portrait of an Unknown Man by Antonello da Messina. Next comes Wassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI – 1913. Claggett Wilson’s WWI painting follows: Flower Death – the Bursting of a Heavy Shell – Not as It Looks, but as It Feels and Sounds and Smells. Finally, the Roraima Cliffs by Paulo Fassina. Wikiarts is the source of the first two. The Wilson painting comes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons is the source of the Fassina photograph.

Do We Expect too Much from Our Romantic Relationships?

Those who are old enough and wise know every honeymoon ends. “Well, my marriage is still really good, but … ” Hard to give an honest answer here, except to your best friend – perhaps. The question emerges: do we expect too much from our relationships?

The romantic ideal or soul mate is a recent invention. The span of history reveals marriages made for lots of unromantic reasons beginning with simple survival, sex, and procreation. Add the use of marriage to cement political alliances between countries, a big dowry to benefit the receiving family, and the safety net women needed in societies offering them no place as a solo act. Socrates, some suggest, married a woman he didn’t care for because a good citizen was expected to produce males to serve and defend the state.

Such relationships didn’t shoot for sexual compatibility, a like sense of humor, or shared child-rearing philosophies. Bad couplings survived to avoid scandal and church community condemnation. Personal fulfillment, for females in particular, didn’t enter the picture. Happiness as a “right” was not in the conversation.

Times change. We believe in the notion of a soul mate, at least in the West: marriage for love and for life to a partner who completes us. In my parents’ heyday, mid-20th century America, once married you were expected to make public social appearances only with your spouse – other than allowances for amusements like athletics or card games. You were a matched-pair to the world and treated as a unit. Routine presentation of yourself by yourself triggered questions. “Where is Joan?” “Where is Steve?” Whispers followed. Take more steps, and you risked social condemnation and religious ostracism.

The unrecognized dilemma today is this: can any individual fulfill the other over an ever-longer lifetime? Will the marriage grow stale well before the spouse dies? Is love crushed under the drop-hammered pressure to meet expectations? Can the partner be superlative at all the roles we posit as the romantic ideal: sexual wizard, protector/defender, sparkling and encyclopedic conversationalist, comforter, therapeutic listener, and take-no-prisoners bread-winner; matched to you in child-rearing style and devotion, values, religion, and political party? A person who recognizes your uniqueness while acknowledging your status, preciousness, and liberty, too. Providing security and excitement, both.

The assumption I’m challenging is the notion that, if he or she is the “right one,” no one else is needed. He is enough. You will be filled to overflowing by the “everything” bottled within the human container who sleeps beside you, leans over, and pours his understanding, intellect, and emotions into you; instinctively knowing whenever you need to be “topped off” (in the gasoline/petrol tank sense of the phrase).

Perhaps it was easier in my parents’ America. Neither thought about witty intellectual repartee or personal fulfillment. They wanted appreciation from the spouse, a joint effort at financial survival (mostly engineered by the man), and kids (mostly cared for by the woman). Men and women of the time were rarely intimate – sharing feelings, “communicating” – in the way we think of intimacy today. No one even talked about the idea.

Child rearing philosophy? The parents in my boyhood environs imagined they’d do what came to mind when the situation called for it – if they considered the question at all. More is wanted now, especially by the female (who seeks equality and perhaps a career outside the home). Attitudes toward sex have changed, too, an enormous topic. Let me say only that the sexual revolution of the ’60s took us from viewing female desire as “suspected,” dutiful, grudging, reproductive, and passive to “expected,” intentional, pleasurable, recreational, and active.

In sum, too many relationships survive with a surfeit of contempt: the partners linked because of money or the children and not by love, like adjacent members of a chain gang. Many others have companionship and limited or absent sex.

The crippling power of the romantic ideal also can lead to a point where someone else, real or imagined, appears in the mind, like smoke billowing from a magic lantern. “I could do better,” you say to yourself; I need someone “more understanding, more passionate, a better provider.” Abuse needn’t be part of the disappointment, nor infidelity. A bored, unappreciated partner is one who can be won by another; at least, the fantasy of another.

The challenge of changing our cultural model of marriage is, perhaps, impossible. Parents read us fairy tales, and we devour novels and movies perpetuating the dream. Our friends portray more bliss than they experience. Biology has programmed us to be momentarily blinded to the lover’s flaws once Cupid’s arrow strikes, to “feel” the honeymoon will last even if we “know” otherwise.

Comes the dawn, we discover we are out of joint with our spouse. Is it then so unreasonable to find partial fulfillment in lots of different places, perhaps compensating for much of the Disney World fantasy that doesn’t exist beyond its gates? Finding friends who “get it,” stimulating our brains by ourselves, having guiltless interests discovered after our marriage, traveling alone or with others to places we want to see, attending shows without the mate, and eating the Thai food our partner hates? In other words, assuming an active role and responsibility for transforming ourselves, rather than viewing the spouse like a bad employee in the relationship store’s complaint department?

This model doesn’t mean giving up on your spouse, but supplementing her instead. Renegotiate the marital contract as needed, go to therapy, look at what is yet possible. Realize that human nature requires fluidity and flexibility in a relationship as time passes, not the worship of a static statue of the two young lovers as they were. Reinvest your emotions, remember the good times, create more of them in the areas where you do match, and recall the struggles surmounted to build a rich if bumpy passage through life. Look at the part of the glass that remains half (or more) full: sweet, aromatic, enchanting. Maybe the magic is not so much gone as gone to sleep. If so, can Prince (Not Always) Charming’s kiss awaken it?

I am asking questions only you can answer.

Meanwhile, beware those folks who claim, “you deserve it,” even if they are referring to shampoo. Worse yet, the promise, “you can have it all.”

No.

I’m not suggesting you must lead a life of misery tied to a cruel, insensitive, dishonest brute of the male or female variety. Vanished love is cause enough to move-on. People needn’t be evil to become less than satisfying.

But, scan the environment and observe: nothing is ideal, dust piles up in rooms ignored, untended bridges collapse, and sometimes the search for the perfect is the enemy of the pretty good; in part because of what we don’t know about the cellophane wrapped, new or imaginary person and what we do know about the shopworn partner.

Perhaps relationships should not be measured only by what happens between the mates. If you have a satisfying job, raise good kids, live in a safe place, and enjoy close friends, might all these be indirect fruits of your relationship? Marital therapist Esther Perel believes perhaps you shouldn’t complain if you have a B- marriage, but get top marks in all the other areas; because the marriage provides a platform for the rest.

Please join me in a toast. Raise your glass to human value despite imperfection, to the worth of a shared road with a loving, sustaining partner who is not a Greek god or goddess (who were frankly more than a little troubled themselves).

Many things are possible in life, but fantasy only takes us so far.

My advice?

Take reality the rest of the way.

The top image is a cover scan of a romance comic book, as is the third and final image of Forbidden Love, both downloaded by Chordboard. The painting between them is The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt. All come from Wikimedia Commons.

What a Woman Wants of Love

I would be presumptuous to tell you what a woman wants from a man (or any romantic partner) in the way of love. But I told you my intentions in the title and I do not mean to disappoint. Moreover, the description of such love will come from another man — just as doubtful a source as I.

I have it on good authority that this other man, Wendell Berry, should be trusted. High praise of Mr. Berry’s insight comes from a wise and lovely lady named Priscilla, who told me (and several of her friends and classmates) Berry got it right. The class includes a number of the Ms., Miss, and Mrs. persuasion, including the instructor. There was no dissenting opinion from even one of them.

Berry’s conception of amour comes from his 1971 poem, The Country of Marriage. As the poet says, “love is always too much.” And later, “We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.” I find the last three stanzas especially touching.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

If your partner doesn’t understand what you want, you can always hand him the poem. If, on the other hand, you are pursuing a female and wish to know her heart of hearts, the verse offers you a lesson in love:

The Country of Marriage

I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry, from “The Country of Marriage: Poems”

All the images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons, beginning with The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. A Kiss between Bride and Groom is the work of Bleiglass, followed by Hands Free of Takuma Kimura. Finally comes The Kiss by Bernardien Sternheim.

Understanding Rebound Romance (and the Rest of Life)

512px-Angel_with_broken_heart

A heart in pain is like a falling star, fascinating until you realize it might become a meteorite about to burn and crash. Will the object splatter? Will the rock survive? Will it bounce in the wrong direction? Such is the life of romance on the rebound.

Unrequited love offers a chance to understand life’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” not only those puncturing the bubble of romance.

What causes us to make a rapid jump back into the dating pool after the ex has left the water? The easiest band-aid for rejection is to blame the former love and pick yourself up quickly, as if to say “I’ll show him!” Or perhaps solitary time frightens you, having never learned to be independent. A long stretch being without a sweetheart to lean on is unimaginable for the insecure.

Fair enough, but this is a reminder to become self-sufficient, not to substitute a fresh body. Moreover, we must learn about our part in love’s failure — one’s own fingerprints on the broken pieces of the loving cup. Was he the wrong mate, yet the type we routinely pick? What motivates our repeated errant choices? Which of our personal characteristics require change — the ones that fray a relationship’s fabric?

Just as essential is the need to grieve the loss. Without doing so, plotting a course forward has but a blind man’s chance of success. We run backward into unfamiliar arms because of the preoccupation with those that previously encircled us. Too late do we turn to look closely at the one now holding us, so great is our desperation to flee the pain of dismissal. Accidents are expected if you don’t see the Mack Truck coming your way. Might the unknown man be just a distraction? Might he remind you of the bygone boyfriend? Do you want to make the ex jealous by displaying an updated, successful, stud puppet? Or is the replacement beau a bodily application, flesh against flesh — a kind of salve — not to heal soreness but to sooth the soul?

Perhaps the fresh darling represents a flight from pain and loneliness, as drugs, alcohol, and overwork often do. The world is now too much. Deadening and distraction can take a human form in the new beloved. You feel powerless over memories and the emotions attached. These unwanted intruders inflict anguish to head and heart. The awfulness seems eternal, as if each second of woe is like a person in a line stretching over the horizon, where the queue’s length (to the point past suffering) signals a journey without end. So you interrupt the grieving you need and escape to someone untried.

Sometimes you are so foolish as to persuade yourself that you won’t permit strong emotions about the new person. I cannot tell you how many patients told me this only shortly before they were again “in love,” again with a bad match.

A rush to get past sadness — as if sorrow can be outrun — often leaves you unstrung. Your head swivels: first looking back, then looking away, finally looking without seeing.

We need to abide with the pain, learn what it can tell us.  Affliction is endurable, albeit one second at a time. Blinder yourself (if you can) against the imagined endless emptiness. After all, perpetual sadness is a possibility, not a guarantee. The catastrophized future leads to desperation, despondency, and poor decisions. Hearts heal, but only if we attend to their needs.

Just as you would not dismiss your grief after the death of a parent, so must you not race past it when love vanishes. The disappearance of affection, no matter the kind or cause, is a stern taskmaster. Pay now or pay later, but you will pay.

We need human attachment to mend the broken heart strings. Before you flee to a passionate embrace, however, are there those who would embrace you in sympathy? Friends, family, or (figuratively speaking) a therapist? They can be enough.

Life asks us weighty questions. How much of the human experience will we let in? How much of living and sensation do we wall off in order to survive? The round world has sharp edges. Walls must be built. We all do it and, to some extent, we have to. How high, how completely, and in what manner are the only relevant considerations. And what do we give up to make life manageable, prevent feeling overwhelmed?

In pondering our psychological defenses and their cost, whether we have love in our life or not, we are all summoned to the same solemn self-interrogation.

How will you answer?

The top photo, Angel with a Broken Heart (Tomba Famiglia Ribaudo) is the work of Jeff Kerwin, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Sex is Too Much Trouble

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If you are young enough, the idea of sex as a chore is beyond imagining. You know you will change as you age, but the thought of sex as a job, obligation, or — worse yet — too much trouble, is inconceivable (pun intended). You’ve heard, perhaps, of those who lose interest, but don’t really think you ever will; and are too busy with the mating game to put your mind into an unattractive future (in both senses), whether due to the march of time or other factors.

Philip Roth tells us about a re-evaluation of the sexual project, as we read the viewpoint of his narrator in The Human Stain. Indeed, the character’s altered attitude toward sex drove him to move from the city to the seclusion of the countryside:

 My point is that by moving here I had altered deliberately my relationship to the sexual caterwaul, and not because the exhortations or, for that matter, my erections had been effectively weakened by time, but because I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring anymore, could no longer marshal the wit, the strength, the patience, the illusion, the irony, the ardor, the egoism, the resilience — or the toughness, or the shrewdness, or the falseness, the dissembling, the dual being, the erotic professionalism — to deal with its array of misleading and contradictory meanings.

The complaint is not unknown. Indeed, some men prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems driving Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars for skin does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex — at least for the connectedness and commitment we hope will come with it. Would the amount spent on cosmetics, hair supplies, skin creams, Viagra, sex toys, personal trainers, gym classes, face lifts, breast implants, hair plugs, mirrors, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry total nearly so much without the hope of a sexual or romantic payoff?

How much time is spent choosing those items and activities? How much time in using them? How much time in wondering whether they have done the intended job? How much time observing whether anyone notices?

Sex is in the scent of perfume and pheromones and aftershave. Romance and seduction are on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. Sex sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious: you would be considered crude. By comparison there is some honesty in the professional transaction of money for sex; one could argue, more than is inherent in the pursuit of a trophy spouse or the prospective mate’s willingness to become a sexual hood ornament.

Roth’s point, however, is more subtle than any of these things. He is referring to learning the steps of the mating dance and performing them to perfection, even when you don’t like the music. Part of his concern is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, the worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person while stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide what is unbecoming.

Then there are the questions of strategies and tactics, the intracranial meeting of your own personal staff of generals to call the shots as if you were embarked on a military campaign: when to phone or text, when to touch, when to flatter or smile or laugh, when to be unpredictable and what you can predict about the target’s vulnerabilities and impregnabilities.

If one’s heart is aflutter, an attempt to comprehend what is going on in the relationship is inevitable, despite your flustered, pulsating state of body and mind. Your conception of the union’s status may not coincide with what the other thinks or hopes, but consumes much time and psychic energy. Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded risk of injury, the extraordinary vulnerability, the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way one is captured, thrown about, unbalanced by an enticing companion. The brain is pitched into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses holding sway. Sex presses you to do things you wouldn’t otherwise do and experience half-crazed feelings of pre-relationship desire, early relationship passion, and end-of-relationship desperation.

How do we maintain a full-time job with all this happening?

Some don’t, you know. The burden of the sexual road show can’t bear the tumult or spare the time to do those other things.

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Should you be young enough, the excitement of the chase, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that might define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, this comes naturally. For most, the meat market is a little like being placed on a skating rink before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. Still, our genetic programming pushes us into the fray.

Time strips away the appeal and ratchets up the cost sex exacts, just as Roth suggests. The hormonal flush diminishes gradually, while the desperation mounts. The psychic scars of failed relationships make one hesitate, but the clock is running. Not just the ticking biological time bomb, but the worry you are gradually becoming invisible to members of the opposite sex because your shining externals don’t have the glow of their best years. A receding hairline, or growing waist line tell you your “use by” date is approaching much too fast. Meanwhile there appears no end of competitors who want to take your spot; less weathered or younger or richer or just simply smarter and better looking.

All this is more than enough to make one nauseous, anxious, or depressed.

Some do, temporarily or permanently, throw in the towel — give up on the sex project. You can have a rich life without lust, but it certainly is different from the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

Celibacy meet-up groups exist around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. Some are like Roth’s fictional character, choosing to be free of the trouble of sex. A portion of those who opt for continence may resist the lure of flesh as a kind of discipline or a way to concentrate on other things and grow personally; perhaps to sublimate their sexual energies, focusing on something beyond and above the narcotic of skin and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

Resisting temptation is always an interesting and difficult project, so there is doubtless knowledge to be gained in it, much as any kind of philosophical or religious abstinence provides, like a day of fasting.

How long would you travel this solitary highway?

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There are as many ways to live as people who are living. One such way could include a span of time without sex. The world is beautiful and forever new if you only look hard enough. Intimacy does not require some sort of penetration of bodies.

For myself, if I were to take a break, I’d schedule a winter in a forbidding place where everyone is covered up.

I’d have lots to do — things of importance to me.

When spring comes and the comely shed their coats?

That would be another matter.

The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revised version of The Emotional Cost of Sex, published in 2012.

Marilyn Monroe and Rachmaninoff: Can Movies Sell Music?

Sex sells everything or so it seems.

My earliest recollection of any connection between sex and music was the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, with Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe. The former imagined seducing the latter when a combination of circumstances fueled his fantasy: a stale, seven-year-old marriage; his wife’s temporary absence; and the availability of Ms. Monroe, his smoldering new neighbor. Ewell’s plan was to use Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 to win her ardor. The scene above depicts his strategy.

Classical music in film usually isn’t intended to engender lust, although the cinematic hit 10,” starring Bo Derek (with Dudley Moore playing the Ewell-like role), gave it a try in 1980, with Ravel’s Bolero serving to keep the erotic pace. Various recordings of the piece dominated the pop and classical charts in the months following.

The use of such music raises the question of whether a movie featuring a classic opus can open the audience to classical scores beyond those pieces featured in the film. Favorites like Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Platoon), or Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 (Elvira Madigan) raised interest in the featured works, but not other selections from the oeuvres of those composers. In light of these failures, should a film be expected to convince a classical newbie to dive deeper into the world of symphonic music simply because of its connection with a single appealing piece?

Let’s start with the music attached to Ms. Monroe and Ms. Derek in the already mentioned films. Does any lonely soul watching Tom Ewell or Dudley Moore think he might achieve his romantic fantasy solely by his choice of CD while on a date? Surely no man with a recording of Bolero or Rachmaninoff playing in his living room regularly brings sex to the mind of women. Thus, a film’s featured sound track, if it is to cause anyone to listen after the cinema’s end, will have to stand on its own. Powerful men have an evolutionary/sexual advantage connected to the need of our female ancestors to find a protector and bread-winner. Contemporary males who listen to Bruckner give their dates no clue to those talents.

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Nor is film likely to create wide interest in classical music without a sexual connection to ladies like the two featured above. No boom in the record sales of Richard Strauss’s other compositions was created by Stanley Kubrik’s use of Also Sprach Zarathustra in Space Odyssey, nor did Mozart’s 600+ compositions fly off the store shelves because the slow movement from his Concerto #21 was featured in an art film hit.

Those who believe cinema might increase the classical audience should consider what must be overcome to do so. Music used in movies competes with dialogue, scenery, and plot for the viewer’s attention. By comparison, the standard concert hall symphonic fare offers no dialogue, no story, and the unremarkable sight of a group of sitting musicians — usually at a distance — fiddling, drumming, and blowing; all dressed in similar outfits.

Music at a concert is supposed to speak for itself, while a movie’s narrative line is intended to transcend the background audio. The implied message is that the score is secondary, designed only to create a mood. If the film tunes are being given second class status by the movie makers, why would anyone believe the rest of the composer’s works were worth their time?

Then there is the obstacle classical music confronts when it is heard by an audience of the uninitiated. The standard wisdom of the crowd is that classical music is “relaxing” at best, boring at worst. If they listen to something attractive on the film’s soundtrack, most may conclude the beauty or excitement is an anomaly, nothing like the standard classics they know or think they know. Surely this belief doesn’t spur the listeners to explore beyond a particular piece that, for them at least, is the exception proving the rule.

One more challenge stands in the way of the film-goer’s transformation from someone who doesn’t listen to many classics to one who does: effort. Anyone who wishes to learn to love the classics must put in a good deal of time. The Beethoven Symphony #5 takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 minutes no matter what. A Rodin sculpture, on the other hand, can be observed for whatever unit of time you wish to put into the examination. Concert promoters do what they can, but they cannot generate motivation or cut the score without mutilating the art.

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Don’t underestimate the effort required to become a convert to an unfamiliar art form, even in the case of visual art. Chicago’s grandly successful and much visited Millennium Park was expected to generate increased attendance at the nearby Art Institute when the former opened in 2004. The failure to achieve the expected bump in Art Institute admissions was “a puzzle” to the museum because the art repository was only one block from the new outdoor venue. Perhaps part of the answer then, is that movies are movies, paintings are paintings, and Bolero’s ability to attract an audience guarantees no crossover even to another of Ravel’s famous works, like La Valse. Those who go to a public park want a park experience, not one authored by Van Gogh. Those who visit a Chinese restaurant aren’t looking for pizza.

Presenters have added movie screen close-ups of the players to the concert experience, big screen painting reproductions to enhance performances of Pictures at an Exhibition, iPads to provide a technological jump from the old style paper medium of program booklets, and lectures before concerts to tell the audience what they might want to notice when the program starts. In the end, however, do these produce the “buy in” intended? Doesn’t the music live or die on its own merits?

Concert promoters have tried about everything to expand the audience for the classics, with questionable success. What can one say that hasn’t already been said? Two things:

  1. In the words of impresario Sol Hurok, “If people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them.”
  2. If you have a seven-year itch, try some talcum power.

Following the scene from The Seven Year Itch is a poster from the movie “10” featuring Bo Derek. The bottom image is the Crown Fountain (facing Michigan Avenue), part of Chicago’s Millennium Park.