Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dumb Boys

On chick lit, genre problems, and Nietzsche

Friday night, I was engaging in a bit of retail therapy at Savers, attempting to absorb, mitigate, ameliorate the gut punch that had crossed my Facebook newsfeed an hour earlier (the L-word! He used the L-word! About that 20 year-old!), when my phone rang. "I need some guy advice," my friend Katie said.

"Not sure I'm the best person at the moment," I replied, "but shoot."

You should know that Katie is a studying neurobiology at a prestigious university. She is also a 6' 1" drop dead gorgeous model. The fact that she a) has guy trouble at all and b) thinks that I can help her with it is hugely amusing. She proceeds to tell me about a 23 year-old fellow student of hers, who is kind of cute, in a nerdy sort of way, and they've kind of gone out once or twice, and he texted her last week and wanted to hang out on Friday, and she had this reception she needed to go to, so she called and asked if he wanted to go with her, and he said, no, he would rather hang out in his underwear and play xbox.


"So are you telling me that this guy cannot even get off his couch and put on a pair of pants for you?" I asked, stunned.

"Yeah, I guess that's what I'm telling you," she sheepishly replied.

"Do I even need to give you advice at this point? I mean, if he's really hot, and you just want to hook up... But this is not boyfriend material, Katie."

"That's what I needed to hear," she sighed.

Why is it always so easy to tell other people? And so hard to tell ourselves?

Back to the 20-year old and Facebook. My current theory is that I keep avoiding the hard truth about the situation because I'm still stuck in the life-narrative requirements of a genre I don't even like—chick lit. (Curse you, Bridget Jones!)

Here’s the chick lit book pitch: They met in college and were a perfect match. They did everything together, from watching Beavis and Butthead to studying Boethius in Latin (okay, not a major selling point) to rock climbing at sunset. Everyone—friends, professors, family—assumed. But he didn’t love her. He loved a hypothetical construct of a woman who was serving a Mormon mission in Uganda (note to editor: Too close to current plot of sold-out Broadway musical?).

She never said a word. She wrote an essay about thunderstorms, which in certain lights, might have been construed as metaphorical. Then she developed an entire theory of Platonic friendship based on the relationship, which would later, like so many of her hard-won theories, be proven dead wrong.

When his fantasy girl came back, he married her, and reality hit, hard. He stuck it out for ten years.

When her hypothetical construct of a marriage unraveled after 13 years, she ran away. To him. He was--it was--just the same. Minus the Platonic part.

They lived in different cities, were both seeing other people. But…

In life and love, timing is everything.

The truth is, there is more than one reason things have not (and will not) work out for us. Those reasons are personified by the 20 year-old, and the type of 43 year-old man who, given the choice, chose her. Maybe we can blame genetics, maybe status seeking, maybe Hugh Hefner, for this all-too-familiar midlife crisis male trope (yeah, he also has a hot, impractical car, to match the hot, impractical girlfriend).

I am not a 20 year-old hottie. I'm an attractive, accomplished, talented, successful, almost 40 year-old woman. I'm raising four children, earning a doctorate, working 8 to 7, and even pursuing my own passions--writing and music--in my spare time (midnight to 2 a.m. on Wednesdays).

I don’t have time for dumb boys, any more than Katie does.

I am truly fortunate to have plenty of close male friends, and I value their intellect, wit, and the way they stroke my ego once in a while. But after talking to Katie, I realized that this friend of so many years is not really my friend. If he were, I would not have felt that need to flee to Savers when he announced his love for his 20 year-old girlfriend on Facebook (though on the plus side, I found this awesome vintage Diane von Furstenburg dress and a pair of $5 leather boots that look new!).

Take that, chick lit! I'm in the wrong genre entirely. I assert, once more, my desire to live my thoroughly examined life in the philosophy section of the library.  Because if there’s one thing I learned when I was a 20 year-old, in graduate school, it’s that there are few sports more enjoyable than taking down an entire philosophy class of dumb boys and making them cry for their mamas.

Oh, and with respect to my erstwhile theory or Platonic friendship, I fear that Nietzsche had it right: “A woman may very well form a friendship with a man, but for this to endure, it must be assisted by a little physical antipathy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Voir Dire

When telling the truth hurts

I’m squirming on a polished pew in the back of a wood paneled courtroom with more than 100 people I have never met before in my life, most of whom have the same goal I have: To get out, quickly, by any legal means necessary. In the room’s center, a massive black shape with white hair—a caricature of a figure called “Your Honor”—has absolute power over our lives for the next six weeks.

Here’s how jury duty works: Everyone seated in this room has a hard luck story. And those with the best (or worst) stories get to leave. People have come prepared—with notes from their doctors, employers, sick grandmothers—documentation of sole proprietorship, of cousins’ weddings, of nonrefundable autumn vacations.

His Honor is not particularly sympathetic to most of them.

As I listen to story after story, my heart sinks. I mean, these people are experiencing hard times that would give Dickens pause! Like everyone in the room, I’m weighing the relative merits of each tale of woe: Potential loss of dream vacation does not equal, on the moral scales of justice, potential loss of six weeks of income at the first job this person has held in two years. It seems that everyone is a sole caregiver, a project manager, the family breadwinner.

One single mother whose state assistance is about to run out stresses that she needs to look for a job, and fast. She is not released from service. But she only has two kids, I think hopefully to myself. And I have four.

The woman who speaks just before me has the perfect pitch: she is leaving Monday on a mercy mission to Africa, where she will work with children affected by HIV, and the trip has been planned for more than a year. His Honor scrutinizes the visa, gravely nods his head. Excused. That one will be hard to top, I think, and for the first time in my life, I’m nervous about the prospect of speaking in public.

I’ve got two angles here—personal, and professional. I can see that my colleagues’ professional narratives just aren’t swaying the crag-faced man in the voluminous robes. So, thinking like any good rhetorician, I decide to tailor my message to my audience, leading with professional (the weaker argument) and ending with the sucker punch personal.

The irony is that I am not aware of just how hard my own situation is to myself until I articulate it in front of a hundred strangers.

After explaining that I’m a key employee at my company (blah blah blah), I say, “And I’m involved in a custody case. I have an evidentiary hearing on September 26. And I’m representing myself.”

Speaking those words, I feel myself collapse on the inside, as if a microcosmic black hole has pierced my heart.  I feel tired, afraid, old. I’m no longer worried about whether or not the judge will excuse me from jury service. I’m worried about my sons, their devastation at their father’s abandonment, my increasing exhaustion as I try to walk the razor’s edge of demanding career and even more demanding family obligations, alone. One slip, and…but I cannot slip. I must not slip.

I don’t know what the judge says. All I hear is, “Excused.” I run to the jury holding pen, turn in my red badge. When I reach my car, I collapse in great gulping waves of tears.

Because I have one of those lives. The kind that get you excused from jury duty. And in a couple of weeks, like it or not, I will be standing in a similar wood-paneled courtroom, arguing, as Robert Frost did, “for heaven and the future’s sakes.” No crag-faced white haired judge can excuse me from the ancient sacred duty motherhood has imposed on me. I cannot bear it. I must bear it.

Voir dire means to speak the truth. And today I think, if asked to speak the truth, Cassandra-like, I would describe life as an infinite series of small betrayals.

At four I learn that bumblebees look soft but sting hard.

At nine, that the petrified forest is not a majestic grove of stone trees, but a pile of broken rocks.

At 19, in my Human Anatomy class, that we are nothing but sacks of meat (we probably taste like chicken).

At 30, in an arbitration proceeding, that the good guys don’t win.

At 35, that love is conditional.

At 39, that fathers abandon sons (Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?)

And I know, as I think about these truths, as I contemplate the overwhelming absurdity of human existence, that more inconvenient truths are in store for me. And I also know that I will survive them, like I survived this day and its awful gut-sucking pain, until I don’t. At that point, I won’t care either way.

Ask any brave explorer or doer of deeds for the truth and they will tell you this: When you’re faced with a trial of any shape, size, or complexity, the only way to go is through it. Unless someone with the power excuses you, as His Honor excused me. Those fleeting moments of grace—those rare times when we are excused—are to be cherished and treasured. Even when the cost is so high.