How I Discovered Girls

They’d been invisible before. Girls, I mean. Then something out of this world happened.

I began to notice them.

Females.

Aliens from another planet, yes, but charming ones previously distinguished only by dress and laughable athletic ability.

Now — not until now — did we all see each other for the first time, them and us.

We’d been told this might happen and viewed TV programs in which the strange awareness descended, like fairy dust, upon fictional young men. The event itself, however, existed somewhere in an absurd and distant future beyond contemplation.

All the pedestrian maidens became beguiling at once. They possessed an unfamiliar, magnetic quality absent the day before. Their presence mattered.

I can pinpoint the moment the world changed for me. It occurred in fifth grade at Minnie Mars Jamieson School, a bizarre name even in the ’50s.

Many of our teachers, antique past imagining and unmarried, betrayed no hint of sexuality. Curious, I asked my father how I came to be.

I planted the seed.

That’s a quote.

My brain buzzed. Dad’s farming background must have been a family secret.

The beginning of a real answer arrived in class when I discovered my eyes drawn to legs. Not any pair of lower limbs, but the appendages of Sharon M.

A day earlier I held an attitude of indifference to their attachment to a female body. They helped those creatures move, nothing more. The skirt-covered supports propped them up and hung down under their chairs as a necessary accessory for their feet, I supposed, if I considered the question at all.

Legs now sent other signals. Moreover, to my astonishment, I managed to decode the message without a magical incantation or a foreign language translator.

Sharon presented me with other fresh features if you count a cheeky gleam to which I was now awake. Nature endowed her with wavy, thick brown hair, an all-season, creamy almond complexion, and symmetrical, softly pleasing facial turns and twinkles that distinguished her from her friends.

When I looked (and I spent more time looking), my eyes perceived colors not present in the muddy, gray, khaki world of boys.

Sherry, a nickname she preferred, brought me turquoise, baby blue, and bisque. The angular, rectangled, straight-lined male domain remained arid, sandpapered, and dusty in contrast.

How did I come to understand she also fancied me? Were notes passed in the classroom? Did one of her buddies whisper, “Sharon likes you?” In any case, we recognized we wanted to connect.

My girlfriend told jokes, too. She delivered the first at a party thrown by Mary Lynn D. Soon enough we began a kissing game called “Spin the Bottle.”

I’m told this entertainment has lost favor since the ’80s, so here are a few details. All the players sat around in a circle. When your turn came, a soft drink bottle placed in the middle of the ring was spun until it pointed to a lass.

The two of you went into something approximating an oversized closet or spare room to kiss. Sherry tried to create the mood once we got there:

Gerry, do you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

I believe Sherry took the lead in much of our time “going steady.”

One afternoon we went to a movie together, chaperoned by my mother, who sat a small distance away. Friendly fingers soon encroached upon my head and ran themselves through my hair. Yes, I once own hair rated first-class, may each strand rest in peace.

After the date ended, mom made some comment to me about Sharon and her “aggressiveness.”

Another time I went to my girlfriend’s house to receive dancing instructions from her and, rather more, from her older sister.

I’d guess Sherry soaked up whatever she grasped about dating etiquette from watching this sibling entertain young men in the family living room.

Just a hunch.

My female-preoccupied interest hibernated for a few years, something Freud called the latency period, in which you are believed to forget any suggestion of being a sexual being. Some guys are so skilled at the misremembering process they begin to behave like they arose from chickens, hatched from an egg.

Fast forward to the last couple of years at Mather High School. Now, these mating matters become significant.

Friends brave enough asked each other how to talk to the fair sex. The blind leading the blind.

We also discussed sign language. How did a dating newbie detect a 16 or 17-year old’s interest? I realized later your pursuit of someone on the distaff team was often sufficient to direct her surveillance your way.

The girls, many of them, marked the time, eyeballing their land-line residential telephones, waiting, wishing, and hoping for them to ring. When they didn’t, the young women wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”

They disclosed their covert shame years later, long after graduation.

All genders carried invisible membership cards in a secret society of hidden insecurities. We suppressed the self-doubts so well, each of us had no idea we belonged to the same club or that such a clique bound us together.

Personal uncertainty was evident on the occasion of my first call for a date.

The sole family phone resided in our kitchen. In the sixties, at least in my working-class neighborhood, two phones would have been an uncommon luxury. No internet nor iPhone yet existed, and my across-the-alley neighbor Jerry and I had long since abandoned two-tin-cans and a long string to communicate.

I wanted to launch into the dating pool after school. My target, the tall, slender, blond CB, would be home. An exceptional student, I figured she’d be studying.

The phone stared at me. Trying to be the hard guy, I glared back. Some amount of time elapsed. Maybe five minutes or 15, perhaps much more. The clock time mattered not, eternity would have been shorter.

The staring contest continued until I admitted defeat.

Much later, I understood this as an early lesson in the importance of “getting things over and getting over things.” Though I didn’t then own the insight to explain myself to myself, there was no need to endure the suffering more hesitation would have inflicted.

Man up, do the hard thing and be done with it. Let go of the misery you create. I still believe this.

The conversation wasn’t long, and CB said yes.

My place on the manhood ladder moved one rung up.

Funny to remember the anguish. Those kinds of contacts and much else became a pleasure beyond pleasure.

I must have puzzled all this out because I managed to produce two children with one of the pretty females I met later.

No masterful advice on the subject shall I offer you. If you enter the game, you find your way. Persistence tends to work most of the time. No matter your doubts, you can partake of blissful beauty, fireworks, and melding with another’s generous heart.

How do I know this?

A stork didn’t deliver you to your parents. Your mother didn’t lay eggs, either.

You come from one female and one male who implanted the seed.

My goodness, dad was right!

_____

The above images, in order: 1. Portrait of Silvia Kohler by Egon Schiele. 2. Photo of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan teen, that appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June, 1985. 3. Peter Behrens’s The Kiss. 4. An undated photo called School Cafeteria, from the Adolph B. Rice Studios via the Library of Virginia. 5. Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The First Whisper of Love by John Douglas Miller, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 7. The Author at age 16 or 17, photographed by Steve Henikoff.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f3/Inveja_covarrubias.jpg/256px-Inveja_covarrubias.jpg

If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.