The World Is Coming to a Beginning

A man none of us knew invited us inside his head. A gift you don’t get every day.

The fellow wasn’t asked to. Our adult education seminar was considering the definition of morality, when all of us witnessed the lowering of the drawbridge into the new acquaintance’s psyche. What we heard from him puzzled some; foolish or innocent or honorable they thought, depending …

The question before us was how society sets rules for acceptable behavior. In ancient Athens or America’s pre-Civil War South, disapproval did not attach to keeping slaves. As southern defenders noted, slavery is in the Bible, without condemnation.

“Good” is relative. Group allegiance matters. Killing the enemy, for example, is required in war-time; not at home in times of peace.

The recent classmate appeared unremarkable at first: slender, sandy hair, and the casual dress of retired folk. Another look, however, revealed weathered features, as if living had gotten the best of him.

He’d been in the Navy in early adulthood. Once home on leave — then temporarily a civilian again — time beckoned to contact old friends and revisit the world of flirtation and love. Or so he hoped.

After several days passed, his sister asked him how that was going.

“Not so well,” he said.

“Why, what’s wrong?”

“Once I tell them I’m a sailor, they aren’t interested.”

“What don’t you tell them you’re an engineer? You are.”

“But I’m a sailor.”

Mariners of our antique time were not thought the most savory individuals. Moreover, when telling young women you are in the employ of your country, they understand you will soon be off to somewhere else: not an enticement toward prospective permanence.

One wondered, as his sister did, why he chose the disadvantageous identity over the no less accurate, more attractive one.

“I was a sailor, trained to value the corps over the self, the group over the person. I identified myself as a sailor first, as did all who served together. My particular job assignment came second. I couldn’t describe myself other than the way I did.”

One man in the class asked if that ever worked out — how he managed the dating business later on. Better after he left the military, he told us, but not the reason he left.

You might be thinking not all naval personnel live a celibate life for the service they honor. Or, you could be psychoanalyzing the ex-seaman, wondering if he used his allegiance to his mates as a way of inoculating himself against potential rejections that could otherwise have been taken as personal.

The young man didn’t use a common approach to meeting and mating, the kind we almost all employ almost all the time. We lead with our best qualities, tell our secrets and open our imperfections later, if at all. Assuming we admit them to ourselves.

A few classmates talked about this gentleman after the session. One found him too naïve and self-sacrificing; another admirable and principled, a third inflexible, impractical. Tribal allegiance came up, too, from a woman who thought the guy no different from the unthinking political types who always take their party’s side.

Perhaps you’ll be amused to hear another response. I mentioned the story to a charming, sixty-something divorcée not in school with us. When I finished, Sophia remained quiet for a bit, as if listening to an internal conversation with herself.

A moment later she asked, “Is he single?”

I said I didn’t know.

“OK. But find out. If he is, I’d like to meet him.”

——

The first image is called Sailor and Rum by Joe Machine. The one following is World War I German Sailor with an Iron Crescent (Medal). Finally, a portrait of Sailor Malan by Cuthbert Orde. All three come 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.

Sexy

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?

512px-Monique_Olsen

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.

Why Women Say “You’re Too Nice” or Why Nice Guys Often Finish Last

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It’s not nice to be told that you are “too nice,” especially if you are a man — a young man — trying to win a woman’s favor. Most of those who have heard this wonder why something “good” — being “nice” — is held against them. Often they observe the very same women with other males who are much less considerate, generous, and kind.

Do you have the sort of kindness that is disqualifying? Kinda’ seems unfair, doesn’t it?

Some of these women, it’s true, have poor judgment. They are drawn to men who are exciting but irresponsible or cruel. Perhaps they are unconsciously trying to find someone who reminds them of a parent who was not sufficiently devoted to them. The new prospective boyfriend now gives them a second chance at getting the type of love they couldn’t achieve from mom or dad; who were rejecting, disinterested, or preoccupied with other people and other things.

Even so, the “too nice” indictment doesn’t always really mean you are too nice. That phrase can be just a stand-in for a lack of “chemistry,” an absence of sheer physical attraction, or a feeling of being bored.

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Chemistry Anyone?

Boredom doesn’t sound good, I know, but if you are a Cubs fan and the female of your dreams doesn’t like baseball, or if you are into country music and she can’t bear it, boredom or disinterest can be the result.

Kind and decent young men need to recognize that there just might be something useful in the dreaded “too nice” communication. Something in the blunt trauma of the words “you are too nice” may need to be learned — the hidden meaning behind the statement.

From an evolutionary and prehistoric perspective, consider what qualities a woman needed in a mate: physical strength, power, and courage would have been useful in protecting the female (and the couple’s kiddies) from danger. Forcefulness, self-assertion, and wiliness might also have helped her potential mate to fulfill that function. Additionally, those characteristics signaled that the man was “fit,” both physically and mentally, and therefore able to produce healthy offspring.

The woman who instead chose the “weak” suitor, the one who was passive or hesitant, perhaps found that he could not “make” a living for them or defend the home. Their children’s survival became more doubtful because of the man’s limitations. If so, evolution would not have favored his characteristics, nor those in the female that caused her to make a poor choice of mate. The genes carrying such tendencies would not have been passed on through the generations, having fallen to the law of the jungle.

To the extent that females paired with strong men increased their children’s odds of reaching adulthood, the tendency for women to choose a bold male would have increased over time. And, it is likely that the most physically attractive females (in effect, the ones who looked most “fit”) would have tended to be selected by the most assertive and forceful men, thus linking beauty and a preference for powerful males in our genetic future.

Women, like men, look for signs of vigor and health, even if they do so unconsciously in the mating game. Without these qualities, the chance of passing on your genes by producing children who live long enough to reproduce themselves isn’t that good.

Moreover, a female today may also want a husband who is an admirable role model for her children, someone to share the burden of decisions and making a life together — in other words, an assertive, capable man who can take on the world. However unfair it can be, these same women just might interpret a worshipful, uncertain, passive, overly considerate man to be a potential liability.

“Niceness” isn’t necessarily the equivalent of weakness, but it can look that way. Doubtful young men, afraid of losing favor, often make themselves less attractive by their hesitation. Meanwhile, those top-dog alpha males who act boldly, are frequently admired in spite of having an edge that gives offense.

I recently read a study with a most intriguing title that is related to this topic: Do Nice Guys — and Gals — Really Finish Last? The Joint Effects of Sex and Agreeableness on Income by Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston, and Charlice Hurst. It was published in 2011 in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Briefly, they found that men who are too agreeable make significantly less money than men who more closely meet a somewhat contentious male stereotype. For the purpose of this type of research, “agreeableness” is consistent with characteristics like being trusting, straightforward, altruistic, compliant, modest, and tender-minded. Those men were also less likely to obtain recommendations for professional advancement.

In contrast, the customary male is prone to “aggressively advocate for (his) position during conflicts.” These more traditional males are also inclined to push their own personal agendas relative to other people and to challenge the status quo. Such individuals tend to be seen as more competent than those who are too agreeable, as well. Moreover, agreeableness impacted “earnings more negatively for men than for women,” meaning that being agreeable hurt female income less. Based on these results, it would seem that women are on to something of practical value when they sense that a man is too nice.

What can you do, then, if you are the aforementioned nice young man?

Find ways to boost your confidence. Learn to face challenges rather than avoiding them. Build your body. Compete. Don’t be too deferential.

Lead. Make decisions. Have opinions. Take a stand. And, whatever you do, do not become worshipful of the woman you are with by the second week of your acquaintance with her.

None of this means you should be callous, hurtful, or cruel. Indeed, courtesy, romance, and thoughtfulness have their place, too, if you want to win the fair maiden’s heart.

Just don’t lapse into a fetal position.

Unless, of course, you are looking to be treated like a fetus.

Fetus (12 weeks old)

The top image is called Some days I just want to curl up in a ball… by Michael Dunn. It is followed by three test tubes of Cobalt Chloride in various stages of equilibration with hydrochloric acid, downloaded by Chemicalinterest. These two photos are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Finally, a 12 week old Fetus sourced from MedlinePlus.

Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame baseball manager and former player, was quoted saying that “nice guys finish last” in 1948. He was then the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and was referring to the New York Giants. Ironically, he would soon find himself managing those “nice guys.”

The Emotional Cost of Sex: Why Some People Don’t Bother

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In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the narrator describes how his changed 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 profess that they prefer sex with prostitutes because it takes care of the problems that drive Roth’s narrator to isolate himself from sexual encounters altogether. For those men, the exchange of dollars and cents does away with the “misleading and contradictory meanings” and the emotional and behavioral role-playing that they find so bothersome.

We do a lot for sex; or, at least for the connectedness and commitment that we hope comes 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, bar bells, watches, clothing, cars and jewelry amount to 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 job intended? How much time watching to see if anyone notices the difference?

Thumbnail for version as of 11:13, 15 December 2006

Sex is in the air in perfume and pheromones and aftershave. It is on the air of radio broadcasts and TV programming. It sells cars, shoes, and itself. But don’t, please don’t point out the obvious. In that event 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.

But Roth’s point 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 it is the sheer effort involved, the fashioning of disguises, worry that you are boring, the time to make yourself look good, the forced concentration on the other person when you are stifling a yawn, the calculations designed to impress, the compromises, the things said to promote yourself, and those unsaid to hide that which 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, there will inevitably be some attempt to comprehend what is going on 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 it consumes much time and psychic energy so long as the interaction matters to you, regardless of the accuracy of your assessment.

Curiously, Roth’s character does not mention the frank danger of sex. The dreaded way it can injure, the extraordinary vulnerability that can come with it — the nakedness in every sense, involving every sense.

He seems more concerned with the way that it captures you, throws you about, wreaks havoc with your balance and equanimity; and pitches your brain into the trash heap because there is no reasoning with all the impulses that hold sway, making your gray matter a vestigial organ. 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 as you hold on for fear it will slip away.

How is it that we keep up our grades or maintain a full-time job with all this going on?

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

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If you are young enough, the excitement of it, not to mention your raging hormones make the carnal marketplace seem the only place to be; an arena that will define you as popular, alluring, or powerful. For a few, it comes naturally. For most, it is a little like learning to skate before you’ve learned to walk; too much, too soon. But still, our genetic programming pushes most of us into the fray.

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

It 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 it, but it certainly is a different life than the wildly urgent existence of the sexual being, where youthful animal instinct meets the combustible allure of the primordial creature in heat.

You can find celibacy meet-up groups around the world, although not all of the folks in these are abstinent by choice. But 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 do it as a kind of discipline or as 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 flesh and the grip of Mother Nature’s hard-wired programming.

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

For how long would you traverse this solitary highway?

Well, as the tire ads say, that is “where the rubber meets the road.” Assuming, of course, that you have a choice.

But, there are as many ways to live as there are people who are living. And 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.

As for myself, if I were to take a break, I’d do it in winter in a forbidding place where I wouldn’t see too many winsome strangers, some of whom might want to be won.

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

When spring comes and the comely shed their overcoats?

That would be another matter.

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The images, in order: Sexy Secretary Drawing by Dimorsitanos, Animated Icon of a Sexy Dancing Girl by Jochen Gros, With Reference to Sexy by Mickey esta en la casa, and Monique Olsen by Christopher Peterson. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Relationship Crime” or the Man Who Knew a Little Bit Too Much

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Knowledge can be a problem. You know the old saying, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

I once had a friend who was dating a lovely woman. She was charming, sweet, and fun to be with. And, this lady was very kind, a person who respected others and went out of her way not to do harm. My wife and I enjoyed her company and my friend seemed to appreciate her immensely, as well.

But, not really looking for someone else, he stumbled upon another woman who pursued him; a pursuit to which he succumbed. Rather quickly, it is true. He didn’t put up much of a fight.

She too was charming and perhaps a bit more energetic than his current lover, and I suspect a little bit sexier, too. She had a sleek sultriness that his girlfriend didn’t possess. But since he never told woman #2 that he was “involved” with someone else, he was “fair game” as far as she could see; and he certainly didn’t proclaim any abiding allegiance or committment to the lady he’d been dating.

From this point, my buddy enjoyed the company of both women — enjoyed sex with each of them — and he saw no reason to tell either one about the other.

But he did tell me what he was doing.

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I asked if either one knew that he was sleeping with someone else; and he had to admit that each of them thought she was in an exclusive relationship with him — that she was the “one and only.”

I pointed out that there was implicit deceit involved, since he knew that his lovers were with him only because they did not know the truth.

“No one is being hurt,” was his reply. And he was sure, he said pre-emptively, that he did not have a sexually transmitted disease, which he’d checked out recently with his MD. No one was in harm’s way from physical disease, he assured me.

As far as this man was concerned, he had made no promise of eternal fidelity and believed that a “no strings attached” understanding existed all around.

My friend was not a young man, nor were the two women — the three of them hip-deep into their fifth decade on the planet. Everyone had been around the block several times. All parties had been hurt more than once. They knew the pain of heartbreak. They didn’t need any more of it, not that anyone of whatever age needs more. It was just that the resilience of youth was no longer as available to any of them as it had been a while back, and one would have hoped that the man had thought just a bit about this fact.

I asked him how he would feel if his youngest sister were sleeping with someone who was doing what he was doing: simultaneously having sex with another woman whose existence was a secret?

This sort of thing used to be called “two-timing,” but I didn’t remind him of that.

He pretended that he did not hear me. Better to keep the walls up, the compartments separated. It was the sort of response (or lack of response) you get from someone who doesn’t want to think any troublesome thoughts that might arouse his slumbering conscience. And so he kept the metaphorical blinders on himself, so that he could not see the collateral damage of his self-serving behavior.

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Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, he viewed these women “instrumentally” — in terms of what they were good for and how they could be used, while comforting himself that “no one is being hurt.”

Perhaps you are asking why all this troubled me. Several reasons. I cared about the first woman — my wife and I both cared about her — and were happy to have become her friends. We knew that she was being fooled, even if she was not presently in any pain. We knew that the “relationship” was based on deceit and her lack of knowledge. We expected her heart to be broken before long. And, I felt bad about the moral degradation of my friend, someone who I could no longer look at in the same way as before — could no longer respect as I once had.

My buddy told me all that I have now related to you on the condition of confidentiality. But that was going to be a problem. Not that I would break his trust, but that I now had what might be called “guilty knowledge.” I knew too much for my own good.

My wife and I had a double-date scheduled with our friend and girlfriend #1. At dinner I was uncomfortable. I knew something that his lady friend didn’t know and I realized that eventually she would be left spinning, which didn’t lighten my mood. It was as if I had just read her X-ray and discovered a spot on her lung about which she knew nothing — yet.

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Nor did I want to participate in the sham of their implicitly exclusive relationship, the references to future things that they planned on doing (some with us), or watch the way that this gracious and good woman-in-love looked at a man who, although he was my friend, was ( I now realized) not nearly so gracious and good; and not in love with her.

The day after this get-together, I phoned to tell him that so long as he was dating both of these women I could not go out with him in the company of either of them; I could not pretend that I didn’t know what I did know.

I knew a little bit too much.

It was not long before my friend ended the contact with the first woman. I suspect that his decision to end the relationship had more to do with his developing feelings for female #2, than any unhappiness with his first girlfriend or the flowering of his dormant conscience. And, I’m pretty sure he’d had difficulty coping with the logistical problems of juggling two relationships, each with a woman who wanted as much of his time as he could give. After all, there are only seven days in a week and the task of keeping both women happy (and unaware of the other) began to wear him down a bit.

And just to show how little influence I had on my friend, he repeated the two-timing when another woman came along who found him attractive. Now girlfriend #2 achieved the position of the previous girlfriend #1, and like here predecessor, she too was eventually taken to the relationship consignment shop. I guess practice makes perfect.

Many years before, when I was an intern in a psychiatric hospital, I recall a raving, out-of-control man being brought into the locked-unit to which I’d been assigned. He was suffering from Bi-Polar Disorder, which you might know by the label Manic Depressive Disorder. Clearly, he was in a manic phase — grandiose, impulsive, erratic, exploding with energy, and incapable of making good judgments.

He had been a high school teacher of mine. A wonderful teacher. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to remember me and I made no effort to remind him of who I was and thus risk embarrassing him.

There are things that we don’t want to see in life: the failings of our friends, the frailty of respected parents and teachers, the needless hurt that one person we care about is doing to another one we care about. We don’t usually want to be party to deception, an accessory to even the kind of commonplace “relationship crime” that my friend was committing against a woman he liked very much.

None of this is very earth-shaking, I know. Unless, of course, you are girlfriend #1. But watching people diminish themselves is no fun, even for therapists who see it every working day. Bad decisions, hurtful decisions, thoughtless and self-serving decisions — all of it part of routine human experience.

We’ve all done some of it, but the best among us learn that it is wrong while others just keep on doing it.

As I said at the start, “I once had a friend…” He might now more accurately be described as an acquaintance. Someone about whom I think wistfully, remembering the days when I thought he was better than he turned out to be. Was he? Had I simply missed some things about him, never seen him in the kind of situation that revealed his limitations?

Sometimes the only conclusion to the story is “I don’t know.”

The top image is Two Women with Sink by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The second photo is of Bernard Spindel Whispering in the Ear of James R. Hoffa in 1957, taken by Roger Higgins, a photographer for the New York World Telegram and the Sun newspapers. The following picture of a Saddlebred Stallion in Harness is the work of Steve Fortescue. Finally, the flash-animation Spinning Dancer was created by Nobuyuki Kayahura at the Procreo Flash Design Laboratory. All images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

“Something She Probably Wouldn’t Want to Know”

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Reunions can bring some pretty interesting discoveries.

I hadn’t seen my friend Dimitri since college. He’d transferred  to another school after our two years together as university friends. But, I ran into him nearly 20 years later, along with his wife Svetlana.

Dimitri was an accountant, but Svetlana was an unlikely mate for the stereotypical green eye shade, numbers-guy. She was dark-skinned, curvaceous, and had a smoldering luminescence that seemed to leave everything else in a gloomy fog, as if she carried a lighting crew in her entourage, tasked with the job of creating a back-lit glow wherever she went.

Greta Garbo by C.S. Bull, a 1932 photo for "Marta Hari."

Greta Garbo by C.S. Bull, a 1932 photo for “Marta Hari.”

You want a human analogue? Svetlana was a kind of slavic Sophia Vergara; or if you prefer, a Russian Sophia Loren in her hey-day, with a little bit of Rasputin in the mix.

Lana, as she called herself, was entirely aware of her allure. She knew that you wanted her (at least in your dreams) and you knew that she knew that you wanted her. Really, it wasn’t so much that you wanted her, as that you didn’t seem to have a choice: something about her simply claimed you.

True, it was a hot day on which we met, but sexuality seemed to rise into the air from her taught, slightly moist, gleaming skin — and from the sound of her voice — especially the “r” sound that she tended to roll. It was impossible for men to keep their eyes off of her, something I observed when the three of us had dinner together a few days after our chance meeting.

A chiropractor could have made a fortune by stationing himself close enough to us to treat all the whipping, twirling, swirling, straining, swiveling necks and noggins. For a minute I wondered if we’d stumbled upon a convention of whirling dervishes.

I did my best to ignore this while Dimitri and I caught up, giving each other the usual “whistle-stop” tour of the things we had done since college, including details about careers, children, travel, hobbies, and the like.

We also asked each other about old friends.

Including my friend George.

I’d come to know good old Georgie because he was a social worker at a hospital where I practiced. But I knew that George had attended Dimitri and Svetlana’s college at about the time they met there.

Since it wasn’t that big a school, I asked if perhaps either one of them knew him.

“Oh yes, I diddd,” said Lana in the enthusiastic, heavily accented, somewhat flamboyant way she said a lot of things.

“In facdt, I detted him just beforrre I starrrded going ott witt Dimitrrree.”

I updated (or was it “updetted”) husband and wife on George’s current doings, except for one little thing.

Georgie was gay.

That fact didn’t seem to be any of their business and George had never given me permission to talk about it with others, although he’d never told me I couldn’t either.

When the dinner was over, we said our goodbyes and Svetlana asked me to give Georgie her best.

Now Lana’s best would have been something, I thought to myself, but I realized that she probably didn’t mean what my mind immediately imagined.

A week or so later I happened to see Georgie and mentioned that I’d met his old girlfriend Svetlana, as well as her husband.

“Oh, yeah, I remember her very well,” said George. “In fact, it was when I was making-out with her that I realized I was gay.”

Well, now I knew a bit more about the George-meister — about his having given the straight life a real chance — not unusual in a society that (even today) can make a gay person’s existence more than a little miserable.

And, God knows, if he couldn’t respond to Lana’s charms, he’d passed some sort of ultimate Geiger counter-like test designed to detect any particle of latent heterosexuality in his makeup.

But, as for Svetlana and Dimitri, I decided that Georgie’s comments were better kept a secret.

Even for a sex-bomb — especially for a sex-bomb —  it was something she probably wouldn’t want to know.

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A Woman’s Mouth with Lipstick is the work of Niki m, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Following the Garbo photo is Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy 1951 — a woman not in control of the situation, unlike Lana.

The bottom photo is of La Tomatina taken on August 25, 2010 and is the work of flydime. It is also sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

That site states that “La Tomatina is a food fight festival held on the last Wednesday of August each year in the town of Buñol in the Valencia region of Spain. Tens of metric tons of over-ripe tomatoes are thrown in the streets in exactly one hour. Approximately 20,000–50,000 tourists come to find out more about the tomato fight, multiply by several times Buñol’s normal population of slightly over 9,000. There is limited accommodation for people who come to La Tomatina, and thus many participants stay in Valencia and travel by bus or train to Buñol, about 38 km outside the city. In preparation for the dirty mess that will ensue, shopkeepers use huge plastic covers on their storefronts in order to protect them. They also use about 150,000 (kg) tomatoes, just about 90,000 pounds.”

Although this image has nothing directly to do with the story, it is a further step in the direction of dyscontrol depicted in the last three images: from the posed, studio photo of Garbo; to the street photo of the harassing men; to chaos.

For what it is worth, I always change many of the details of the stories I tell that have to do with my patients, or with other acquaintances who would not wish to be identified. On the other hand, the more personal of my posts — those about myself or family members, are usually as accurate as my recollections permit.

In the case of the present story, the character I have called “Georgie” did, in fact, discover his homosexual identity while making-out on a college date with a young woman. It is an episode “based on a true story,” as they say in the movies.

Looking For Trouble? Why Being “Friends With Benefits” Might Not Be To Your Benefit

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Like a parent putting a weapon in the hands of someone too young to use it safely, Mother Nature has given teenagers sex. And, along with its novelty and thrill, come bodies that are drawn to each other with an out-of-control animal magnetism. They are spring-loaded even before spring time, aching to be launched.

And, perhaps worst of all, Western culture has made sex into something almost as impersonal as buying your groceries.

Like those groceries, it is a thing to be consumed. And, like food, it produces sensations, with particular attention to appearance, shape, smell, taste, and texture.

But unfortunately, this thing that we consume with alacrity, just might eat the consumer alive.

Sex has always been a problematic commodity, even before the days when it began to be used to sell other commodities: cars, soft drinks, and the like.

Now the idea of “friends with benefits,” with No Strings Attached as the movie title promises, has added a new wrinkle to the long list of carnal complications.

For ages sex has put young people in the position of trying to figure out how to have it, without the concomitant problems of shame, disease, and pregnancy. For a long while access to young women was restricted by their families and trustworthy chaperones, with religious institutions casting a long shadow over the entire reproductive process. Perhaps George Orwell’s Big Brother wasn’t involved in surveillance of one’s comings and goings, but your own big brother was likely to be if you were female.

What the church couldn’t monitor, it condemned. Punishment by shunning and shaming was Hester Prynne’s reward for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Church-derived predictions of a hellish afterlife and a powerfully ingrained sense of guilt also contributed to hesitation even when your older male sibling wasn’t close by.

Eventually, however, several things happened. Urbanization made people more anonymous and independent than when they lived in small communities. They were now less easily watched and controlled. Women asserted their rights, and politicians and voters followed their lead in granting them. The automobile assisted a couple in getting away from watchful eyes and offered a place, even if uncomfortable, where sex could occur.

Meanwhile, more women began to go to school in co-ed institutions and economic necessity brought them out of the kitchen and into the work place. The weakening of religion’s governance and the invention of the birth control pill further undermined the likelihood of negative consequences if the female became sexually active.

With less to constrain them, young people did what comes naturally. Casual sex always existed, but now it was a game that the woman could play with less chance of social disgrace. The 1969 movie John and Mary portrayed the very young Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow as two characters who become sexually involved and only introduce themselves by name at the film’s end.

One night stands, of course, can last more than one night. “Hook ups,” can hook you permanently. But the once common expectation of something meaningful coming from a sexual encounter has been relegated to a past that many young people see as a relic from the prehistoric age of their grandparents.

Which brings us to the idea of “friendship with benefits.” There are even instructions on the internet on how best to achieve this (apparently desirable) change in a platonic relationship. You are expected to think clearly, recognize in advance whether you can keep your emotions in check, choose the right person, and create clear and mutually agreeable rules about how often and under what circumstances you will see each other.

Unfortunately, even with some guidance, you are working against biology and psychology. And, you are risking the conventional friendship (without benefits) that existed before. As Robert Burns put it, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often go awry.

Let me count the ways, leaving out such complications as sexually transmitted disease, religion, and pregnancy:

  1. The human heart is hard-wired to “care,” especially the female heart. Having won equality and the right to control their own bodies, women are well-advised not to assume that they can objectify the opposite sex with the ease that men can.
  2. Even in friendships jealousy can be an issue. Despite the new set of “rules” that govern your sexualized relatedness, how might it feel to you after intercourse if your companion finds other things and people to occupy himself? Eventually, at least one of the parties is likely to attach to someone permanently. How will the “old friend” like it when his or her status is changed unilaterally back to what it was before sex?
  3. A “romance” with no commitments, no responsibilities, and no future is not likely to bring out the best in either person. It encourages treatment that is callous or indifferent.
  4. Do you believe that it is possible to make the relationship sexual without changing it? A kind of vulnerability can come with nakedness; the other person now knows some very personal things about you. Will he look at you and you at him in the same way later?
  5. Performance questions are almost inevitable. Was the sex good? Good enough? How did it compare to others? If it was not satisfying, how do you move back to a platonic relationship without injuring your friend?
  6. Perhaps you believe that you will get out of the “benefits” portion of the connection before your emotions get in the way. This represents a pretty basic misunderstanding of how (and how rapidly) love can bloom. If I had a nickel for every time one of my patients predicted incorrectly that her brain was in charge and would signal the moment in which to exit, I would be the richest man in the world.
  7. Even if you are able to keep your head dominant over your heart, your decision to get out might leave your friend devastated. Why would you want to risk something (your friendship) that you claim is so important to you?
  8. Does your mate-of-convenience have a different agenda than you do? Does he hope that love will follow sex, even if he states that he does not want or expect that?

One more point. Why would you want to give up the romance, the mystery, the allure of growing intimacy that might lead to love? Why debase something that can be precious and make it a commonplace?

We lose our appreciation of things too easily achieved. If gold grew on trees, it would not be so highly valued as it is. Few of life’s offerings escape the law of supply and demand.

Society puts young people, even including some not quite so young, in a tough spot. “Choose!” it says at the extreme, between an inflexible abstinence based on religious text and physical contact that has been so commoditized it is little more than the raw reproductive act of our mammalian cousins.

Remember: song writers write love songs, not songs about friends with benefits.

The photo above captures a Navy Seal showing a child an M4 carbine at the Veteran’s Day Ceremony of November 7, 2009 at Ft. Pierce, Florida. The author is Chief Mass Communications Specialist Robert J. Fluegel. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.