Mom Died Recently

(About a 9 minute read)

One night, when I was about eight or ten years old, I woke up towards 11:00 PM and, sensing something was wrong, went looking for mom.  She was not asleep in her bed, but there was a light on in our living room.  I expected her to be awake reading, which she sometimes did.  Yet, when I got to the living room, her favorite chair was empty.  Almost the same moment, however, she came in through the front door.  Naturally, I demanded to know where she’d been.

“I’ll tell you”, she said, “But only if you first promise me that you will not tell anyone where I’ve been.”

I solemnly promised that I would not, for she was using her serious tone of voice with me, the tone she reserved for when she wanted her words to sink in.

“I leased an apartment to a new tenant today, a mother and her five children, and I discovered that she was out of money and without food for herself or her family.  She won’t get paid for a few days yet.  So after work, I went to the store and bought some groceries for them.  Then I waited up until I thought they would all be asleep before delivering the groceries to their doorstep.   I’ve just now returned from doing that, and you must not tell anyone what I’ve told you, not even your friends.”

“But why, mom?”

“Because it could rob them of their pride if it ever got around how poor they are, Paul.  Besides I don’t want them thinking they owe me anything.”

I don’t recall that I entirely understood her reasoning, but I did understand the gravity of my promise, and so I kept her deed a secret even from my two brothers.  Looking back now, I can see how that event Illustrated three of her character traits: Her compassion, her sensitivity to others, and her modesty.

To many people in our community, she was above all else a strong, stoic person, even a bit on the strict side — and while I think there was a great deal of truth to that — I knew her as also caring, compassionate, and considerate.  She was, however, a very private person, very modest about most things, and so somewhat difficult for most people to know.

In fact, I have wondered for some time how much even I and my brothers knew about her.  Some years ago, when she retired, the local newspaper ran a full page article on her accomplishments, positions, and honors.   My brothers and I were astonished to discover that about half of it was news to us.  I would not call mom an “intentionally secretive” person, but there was so much about her that she had simply not thought important enough to mention to us.

For 33 years, she was the CEO of a small housing company at a time and in a community where women were not generally thought to be extraordinarily capable of running a business.  She grew the company eight-fold.   When she took it over, it was in the red.  In relatively short order, she had it in the black, and she kept the company there for 30 consecutive years until her retirement.  Yet, when you spoke with her about it, she would modestly ascribe her success “mainly to luck”.   Mom seemed to feel no need for praise nor recognition.  In fact, she tended to shun it.

Like many people in our hometown, both of my brothers think of mom as an especially strong person.  My younger brother in particular has told me he believes “she was the strongest person he’s ever known”.   A story that’s still told about her in the town concerns a huge, burly contractor who once went ballistic on her, yelling and screaming at her in her own office.

She had employed him to build a six-story apartment building.  One day, she noticed a flaw in the brickwork and ordered him to tear down the wall in order to fix it.  That’s when he lost his temper, threatening her with, “I’ll have your job”.

It was no idle threat.  He was well-established and respected in the community, friends with several of her board members, and she was new to her job.  Moreover, she had three small children to fend for, no husband to fall back on for support (our father having died a few years before), and no prospects for landing a similar job in the local economy if she lost the one she had.  Yet, as the story goes, she didn’t blink.  She stood her ground, calmly presented her case to the board, and in the end, the wall came down and the brickwork was fixed.

I too remember her as a strong person, but even more, I remember her as a stoic person.  In all the time I knew her, I witnessed her crying once, and only once.  If you’re curious, I blogged about that here.  My brothers, on the other hand, never once witnessed her crying.

Only one of us ever witnessed her lose control of her temper, too.   My older brother has a memory of her engaging in a shouting match with a neighbor when he was about five or so.  That’s the only time anyone of us can recall her raising her voice in anger.  Of course, she would get angry at times, but — excepting that once — she kept her anger in check, never lashing out irrationally or unreasonably.

In fact, she could be a bit too stoic, I think.  During the earliest parts of my childhood, she found it difficult to express love or affection.   A friend — a psychologist — noticed that about her, and convinced her to reform herself.  Afterwards, she gradually got much better at it with practice, but I will always remember her very first, very awkward effort to express the love she felt for me.  She shocked me one evening with a hesitant but abrupt pat on the head — after which, she was so embarrassed that she fled into the next room.  Somehow I cherish that memory of her as much as any — it was, after all, part of her character.

Mom was an eminently reasonable person.  There were many times when I thought she was wrong, but there were few, if any, times when I thought she failed to listen to my side of an issue.   Even when as small children we challenged her rules, she would (at least at first) patiently explain her rules and seek to reason us into complying with them.

Only as a last resort would she fall back on, “When you’re old enough to make your own rules, you can make the rules you want, but you will obey this rule because I’ve made it, and I’m your mother, and responsible for you.”  Sometimes we could even reason her into changing a rule — especially as we grew older — and provided that she thought we’d made a good case for ourselves.  Friends of hers often enough remarked that she “spoke to us like adults.”

Mom was in the habit of gently interrupting us whenever we made an error in reasoning. She would then not merely point out the mistake, but also patiently explain to us precisely why it was a mistake. Naturally, as a child, I did not immediately appreciate her guidance in these matters. In fact, I came to think she was a wee bit obsessed. Or, as I once insightfully put it to my best friend, Dennis, “My mom is nuts”.

It wasn’t until I was at university taking an introductory course in logic that my opinion of her sanity began to change. When my class came to the section on informal fallacies, I was astonished to discover I already knew 35 of the 36 most common fallacies of logic – knew them backwards and forwards, and knew them only because mom had drilled them into my head over the years I was growing up. All I had left to do was learn their names.

She was quite reasonable in other ways as well.  I’ve blogged about one of those ways in a funny post here.  She also implemented a policy after we became teens that several parents in our community were inspired to adopt for their own kids.  She told us that if we were out drinking and we even “so much as suspected” that we’d had a bit too much to drive safely, we could call her at anytime, no matter what the hour was, to come get us home — there would be absolutely no repercussions.   She would not, she promised, so much as mention or hint about it the next day.   My brothers and I took her up on her offer more than once or twice, and she was always true to her word.

Mom took religion seriously, so seriously that she believed children were too immature to make any firm decisions about it.  Consequently, she forbade us from deciding whether we believed in God and such until we had, as she put it, “reached the age of reason” — by which she meant at least 18 and, preferably, our early twenties.  She went further than that, though.  She refused to tell us of her own beliefs while we were young on the grounds that we might go along with her just to ape our mother.  Of course, her rules for us about religion scandalized a few people in the county who thought she was hellbent on raising infidels.

She did send us to Sunday school each week, and when we asked “why”, she told us it was “to expose us to our cultural heritage”.   Around the age of eight, I got fed up with Sunday school for some reason that I now forget.  I pleaded with mom to allow me to stay home.

At first, she was adamant that I should continue to go, but then I had a rare stroke of genius.  The thought suddenly occurred to me that mom’s real objection to my staying home was that she cherished having an hour or so by herself without us kids underfoot.  I promptly began fervently promising her that I would be quite well behaved during the “church hour”, exceptionally well-behaved, even silent as a mouse well-behaved.

She held her ground until I blurted out my newfound conviction that what she really wanted was quiet time to herself, and that since I was willing to give that to her, she should give me a chance in return.   That struck her as reasonable, and so I was allowed to stay home on Sundays — on the strict condition that I kept my word.  The very next Sunday, my brothers cut their own deals with her.

In her later years, mom would reminisce with us about the days we were growing up.   What she herself seemed to remember best was the laughter.   One day the four of us were eating in a restaurant when a man approached us to remark that he’d seldom seen a family laugh together as much as we were doing.  And that was pretty typical of us.  Whenever we were together, whether in a restaurant, around our kitchen table, at friend’s homes, or in our car, we were often enough laughing.

Unfortunately, most of the jokes were of the sort that would take some explanation, for we seldom recounted jokes we’d heard, no matter how funny they were.  Instead, we made things up on the spur of a moment — and our family tended to see humor in nearly anything.  My mother, for all of her stoicism, never had a problem with laughing, and she especially appreciated self-deprecating humor and genuine wit.

She drew the line, however, at malicious laughter.  She simply did not believe in making fun of others if doing so risked wounding them.

The newspaper article published upon her retirement mentioned, among other things, that she had served on the boards of one university, one college, two poet’s societies, an historical society, a zoning and planning commission, and a welfare advisory council.

Much of that was news to us.  At her visitation, my brothers and I were still finding out things about her from the guests.  In some ways, I think I knew her well, but in other ways, I believe she will always remain a bit of a mystery to me.

She died peacefully, August 22, at the age of 99.  We buried her the 2nd of September.

Something quite unplanned happened after the graveside service. We were each of us holding a red rose, quietly conversing, when one of my young nephews approached the grave, stood silent for a few moments, and then dropped his rose onto her vault, which had already been lowered into the ground.

One by one, the rest of us followed his example, without a word of direction from anyone, until we had all said our silent goodbyes.

Seven Key Things You Should Do to Find the Right Lover (For Young Women Especially)

(About a 17 minute read)

It is only natural that, as we get older, our tastes in entertainment change.  Mine sure have.  At sixty, the days when I enjoyed showing up at church socials disguised as a United States Department of Agriculture Dairy Products Inspector in order to plausibly announce that I had discovered salmonella in the ice cream are long gone.  So, too, are the hours I once spent calling random strangers at suppertime pretending to be a telemarketer selling “the most exciting brand of mint flavored dental floss you and your family will ever enjoy in your whole lifetimes! Can I put you down for six cases?”.

Nowadays, I have adopted more dignified entertainments, the chief of which is corrupting the youth.  For I have found — like so many people before me — that corrupting the youth is the natural joy and bliss of old people.

I confess, however, that I’m something of a snob about it.  That is, I’m very picky about the ways in which I endeavor to corrupt the youth.  For instance, I disdain giving the traditional advice:  “Work hard, become a cog in the machine, support the status quo, and you too will become your own man.”  Or, “Dress modestly, keep your eyes downcast, and walk in a way that does not tempt men to look at you with lust in their hearts and you too will be rewarded with a wonderful husband devoted to making you happy and blessed.”

No, while I do find such old fashioned advice an effective way to corrupt the youth, I also find it much too cliché for an advice-snob like me.  Consequently, I have specialized in — to put it indelicately — advising young people on how to get laid by someone they want to get laid by.   Just yesterday, for instance, on this very blog I published, The Most Basic Way to Find a Lover (For Men) — for, as everyone knows, nothing corrupts young men like getting laid.

So today I aim to do the same disservice to young women with this post.  Of course, nothing is more scandalously corrupting for a young woman than for her to empower herself to get laid on her own terms.  So precisely that is the real core of this post.  This is all about how to empower yourself by doing seven key things that will dramatically increase your chances of finding the right lover for you.

Naturally, I am eminently unqualified to be offering this advice.  After all, I am an old man here advising young women!  But an excess of sanity has never been one of my weaknesses.  Hence, I must caution any young women reading this that the advice they are about to receive should be embraced with due caution.  Obviously, my advice is not based on personal experience.  Most of it comes from observation, a little of it comes from science, and some of it comes from women close to my own age who’ve told me things they wish they’d known when they themselves were younger.

The only claim I make about the quality of this advice is that it’s stuff I’ve considered and mulled over for years — decades in some cases.   Life can be very strange at times, and — in a way — one of the strangest things that ever happened to me was to have once served as the confident of dozens of young women (and young men, too).   That was about twenty years ago.  Circumstances put me in a position that I did not intend to find myself in, but which eventually resulted in my thinking long and hard about many of things I’ll be writing about today.  Now, with that said, let’s gallop on to the first golden nugget of wisdom  bit of wise advice   insightful observation  old fart’s opinion about what many young women should and should not be doing.

• We start today with what might possibly be the weirdest, most unconventional, bit of dating advice you’ll ever hear from the mouth of an old man:  Ladies, get a hobby!

It doesn’t matter what your hobby is.   So long as it fits you, it can be anything from mud wrestling to sewing your own clothing.  By “fits you”, I simply mean that it should be something you can become good at.   Becoming good at it is key.  But you should get a hobby even if that means putting a lot of time and effort into it.

One young woman I know — a woman I once nannied for a few years — had few interests outside of babysitting.  But she nearly turned babysitting into an art.  She read up on her subject.  She planned her sessions with extraordinary care and creativity.  She kept a diary of how her sessions went, and of the lessons she learned from them.  You can turn just about anything into a hobby, but you should pick something you can become excellent at.

My advice here isn’t based on any grand theory of human psychology.  It’s based on observation.  I have noticed over the years that women who have some interest, something outside of — or apart from — men, that they are passionate about are much more likely to weather the ups and downs of finding a decent lover than women who don’t.  They are not only more resilient, but so far as I can tell, they are happier.  And — for some reason — this is especially true of fatherless girls.

• A friend of mine — a woman a few years older than me — once told me, “If young women understood their ‘pussy power’, they’d rule the world.  The trouble is, it’s only us older women who understand it, and then not even all of us.”   And she’s not the only older woman who has told me much the same thing.  But even if no one had told me about it, I could still testify to the “power of the pussy” based on my own experience as a young man.   The thing is, most young women strike me as nearly clueless about it.

All else being equal, women usually — not always, but usually — have the upper hand in the early stages of any relationship.  Especially in the very early stages.  That is, if they recognize their power and act on it.  Yet so many young women behave as if the terms of their relationship are up to the man.  All too often, they are reluctant to express their legitimate wants and needs; they “compromise” by caving in, perhaps with the expectation that they’ll work things out more to their favor later on in the relationship; and they do not enforce clear and consistent boundaries, among other things.

There are probably dozens of reasons — both biological and social — that women do not take full advantage of their pussy power.  But rather than get into those here, let’s just say that anytime a man wants a woman, even if it’s only for a one night stand, the woman has at least some significant degree of leverage over him.  There is an excellent little book called, You Can Negotiate Anything.  Buy it, borrow it, steal it — but read it.

To be perfectly clear, pussy power is not about using sex to manipulate a man.  Giving or withholding sex in order to get your way is poison to any healthy relationship.  Both men and women are fools if they do it while still expecting to have a loving relationship.  But that’s not what pussy power is about.  Pussy power is about recognizing that you have the leverage — as a woman, an individual, and a human — to negotiate the terms of your relationship as at least an equal to your partner, and quite possibly a bit more than equal (especially early on in a relationship, when it can count the most).  This is an important thing to realize because so often young women imagine they are either relatively weak or powerless in a relationship.

I know some people will think I’m offering pretty cold advice here, but it only seems that way.  With few exceptions, there is no genuine romance or warmth in a one-sided relationship.  If you think you can get what you need — much less what you want — by leaving everything up to the man, by surrendering all control and initiative in the relationship to him, you should deeply ponder just how likely that is to work out well for you.

Society trains women to defer to men, to put men’s wants and needs above their own.  But that’s not how a true partnership works.  You have every right — and every happy reason — to be the equal of your partner.  Are you worried a man might not like that? Then accept the fact that, regardless of whatever tough-guy front he might put on, he’s basically a weak, insecure man, and either chose a different partner, or at the very least, realize you’re going to have to pay for his insecurities one way or another.

If you want to make things exciting for a man, be a person in her own right. Do him a favor — give him something to cherish and love that’s more than a doormat.  If he’s a genuinely strong man, being a genuinely strong woman isn’t going to dismay him — it’s going to excite him, challenge him to be the best he can be.  As long as you don’t use your pussy power to actually abuse a man, you will do just fine to use it.

• One of the hardest things for anyone — regardless of age or sex — to do is to be true to themselves.  And just about no one is perfect at it.  But failing to be substantially true to yourself when looking for a lover can have catastrophic consequences.

It’s easy to understand why.  If you put on a false front with people you will (1) attract folks who like the false you, but probably not the real you; and (2) you will repel folks who don’t like the false you, but might have liked the real you.   In either case, you are increasing the odds of ending up with a lover who really doesn’t like you.  Not the real you.   And few things are more problematic than that.

Put differently, you should be as  true as possible to yourself in order to give those people who like you a chance to like you, and also in order to get rid of those people who do not like you.  It’s really that simple.  But how important it is to be true to yourself is easily overlooked.  For much more information on being true to yourself, see my post here.

•  There is a sense or way in which a very large number of people put less time and effort into choosing a lover than they do into choosing a laundry detergent.  That is, they might try, compare, and weigh a half dozen laundry detergents before settling on one brand of detergent that meets their needs, but nevertheless rush headlong into a partnership with the first or second person that comes along.

This seems to be especially true when sex is involved.  I’m all for sex.  I think it’s a great thing yada yada yada.  But I’m appalled at how many people stick with someone simply because he (or she) was “the first”.

To be sure, sometimes the first or second person happens to be the best bet.  But the odds of your knowing that without doing some comparative shopping, so to speak, seem to me to be fairly low.  You don’t have to ditch the first or second person who comes along in order to do some shopping.  You just have to refuse to immediately commit to a monogamous relationship with them.  Don’t think you have the leverage to do that?  Remember pussy power.

You should ask yourself whether you want a mediocre love life, or something better, even much better.  If all you’re looking for is “passably good enough”, then by all means, jump on the first boat leaving the dock.  But if you want more than that, prepare yourself for some serious comparative shopping.  After all, there are approximately 3.5 billion men in this world.  What do you think are your chances you can’t find a stellar lover out of that large of a pool of candidates?

•  Every young woman these days knows that Prince Charming is a myth, right?  We’re way past the age in which young women waited patiently for Him to come along, sweep them off their feet, and make them forever and ever happy, right?  But if that’s the case, then how come so many young women are still waiting for their prince?  You don’t need to consciously profess to believe in a Prince Charming to unconsciously be waiting for one.

It seems to me that one of the biggest myths our society teaches us about a woman’s role in finding the right lover for her is that her role is essentially passive.  I think most men believe that myth, and at least all too many young women do as well.  The myth, however, is diddly-do-squat, to use the technical term for it.

About forty years ago, a study — perhaps the first scientific study — was done on courtship behavior in humans.  If I recall, a group of graduate students were sent to the bars to observe what really happens between men and women meeting for the first time.  After hours and hours of observation, the students reported back that their hang overs were killing them it is actually the women who most often initiate the contacts!

What happens is that a woman in effect signals a man to approach her by any of several means, the most common of which is to simply smile at him while making eye contact.  After being signaled, often repeatedly, the man most likely approaches the woman, introduces himself, and the two of them then sort out their chemistry or lack thereof.  In other words, courtship behavior in humans is typically initiated by the woman.

Every single relevant study of human courtship behavior (that I’m aware of) since that first one has found pretty much the same thing.  Up to 90% of the time, the woman initiates contact.

Yes, it sometimes does happen that a really good lover comes along to a woman who has taken no more initiative to find him than to wait patiently for his arrival.  But just about anything “sometimes happens”.  What I’ve seen much more often is that a poor fit comes along and that poor fit is then blown up way out of proportion by the woman’s hopes and dreams that he’s a prince.

Your odds of finding a great lover dramatically improve if you put yourself out there and make things happen.  Yes it requires time and effort to meet people, but look at the potential pay off!  People complain over and over about how frustrating and grueling the “dating scene” is.  But that’s life.  Most things don’t fall in your lap: You have to work for them.

•  This might be the single most important bit of advice I can give you.   It’s simple in theory, but often hard to do in practice.  Yet do it you must if you are going to be happy.

When you meet an abuser, move on.  Don’t try to reform him.  Don’t try to save him.  Don’t try to change him.  You aren’t going to win that one.   Move on just as soon as you safely can after identifying him as an abuser, and regardless of any excuses you or he can think of for you to stay.

How do you know he’s an abuser?  Early on, it can be hard to tell in many cases because abusers tend to be quite charming up until they sense you have become committed to them.  Then they unleash hell on you.  But if you find someone who:

  • Fails to keep in check any possessiveness or jealousy they feel
  • Believes that you — and not they — are responsible for their feelings, especially any feelings they have of possessiveness, jealousy, and lust.
  • Bad-mouths their ex’s (especially in a one-sided manner, as if there was never anything good about the people they’ve been with in the past)
  • Tells you you’re not like all the rest, meaning you’re not as bad as the rest
  • Has a low opinion of women in general, and plenty of “reasons” to excuse his low opinion
  • Makes you feel uncomfortable to be yourself
  • Freely and sincerely criticizes you in front of others
  • Tries to isolate you from your friends and family
  • Wants to control you, especially your sexuality, but also in any other way tries to control you (influence you, yes; control you, no)
  • Attempts to change you into a person you are not.  That is, change you against your nature, against who you are as a person

If any of the above are true of someone, then the chances are good you’ve got hold of an abuser.  However, the surest sign is the last: They want to change you in ways that go against your nature, against who you are as a person.  That is, they want you to not be true to yourself.  And the only exceptions to that rule are if and when they try to change you because being true to yourself would genuinely harm you or harm others.

If you had a poor relationship with your primary care giver (mother, father, grandparent, etc), or you are a fatherless girl, then please be especially cautious about the potential of getting into an abusive relationship.

It can be difficult to leave an abuser, but the longer you stay with him, the harder it will get.  Seek professional help if you are having difficulty leaving him — your situation is that serious, whether you fully realize it or not.

• Keep up your relationships with your friends and family.  It always surprises me how many woman, once they find a lover, suddenly disappear — or all but disappear — from the lives of their friends and family.  That’s a mistake.

Early on in a relationship, your lover might seem like someone who can be everything to you — friend, confident, companion, partner, etc — but as time goes on, you’ll almost certainly find that he simply cannot be excellent at all those things.

Moreover, it’s not fair to expect him to be everything to you.  That sort of expectation belongs to fairy tales, and imposes on him a huge burden that, if he takes it seriously, will probably drive him to alcohol, drugs, or even blogging.  Do both him and you a huge favor by keeping up with your family and friends.

Besides, if worse comes to worse, they are your lifelines.  They are the people who — if the relationship doesn’t work out — you will need to help you pick yourself up and bounce back from the thing.

That pretty much wraps up all the advice I’ve got for you today.  To recap, here are the seven points in bullet form:

  • Get a hobby (Cultivate a passion in life apart from men)
  • Understand and use your pussy power
  • Be true to yourself
  • Shop around a bit
  • Seize the initiative by putting yourself out there
  • Move on from abusers ASAP
  • Keep in touch with your friends and family

I’m acutely aware of the fact that my advice is not comprehensive — that’s there plenty of good advice for young women I haven’t covered here.  I am hoping that my readers will chip in and offer their own sage advice.  Please feel free to do so!

If you feel grateful to me for this post (unlikely) or feel grateful to me for finally ending it (very likely), then you should consider buying from me a case or two of the gosh darn best, most exciting mint flavored dental floss you’re apt to ever enjoy during your whole lifetime!  Why go yet another dreary day without the tingling, fresh gums you know you deserve as a human?  Simply call me, your Uncle Sunstone, at 1-888-SCAM.  Please have your credit card handy!


EDIT: Sheri Kennedy has offered some excellent advice in the comments to this post.  See her advice here.

The Terrible Terrys and Racism

(About a 5 minute read)

I was five years old when my maternal grandmother passed away.  She’d been born in 1875, and my best memories of her are of her in a rocking chair, her hands sewing, while she sits in a sunbeam streaming through the big southern window in my bedroom.  I play at her feet.  And sometimes she reads to me.

She would have been in her mid-to-late eighties then, and my mom tells me she was frail in old age.   She taught me to sew, and I — with my sharper sight — threaded needles for her.

That’s about as much of my grandmother as I remember, but mom quite recently told me a bit more.   It seems grandmother had, for her time and place, slightly peculiar ideas about race.

For instance, in the community grandmother lived in most of her adult life, it was commonplace for Whites to use racial slurs when referring to Blacks.  Even some of the community leaders did so.  Grandmother was among a minority of  White people in her neighborhood who seemed disturbed by those slurs and who refused to call Blacks anything other than “Negroes” (The word, “Black”, having not yet come into general usage).

From what I gather, there might have been a couple sources of encouragement for grandmother’s somewhat peculiar ideas about race.   In the first place, grandmother’s side of the family was from New England and had included among it’s members some staunch abolitionists.  Not that abolitionists were always respectful of Black folks, but I’m guessing that her’s might have been.

In the second place, grandmother was one of those women — rare in her time — who had a college education.   Not that one can be sure, but grandmother might have picked up some of her strange ideas about race while attending college.

So whether by family tradition or by education, or by some other source, my grandmother somehow came to the notion that Black folk were to be respected as equals — and she did so in a time and place when, according to my mother, she would not likely have gotten that notion from the community in which she lived.

Her husband, my grandfather, had a farm and he hired men to work it.   When mom was growing up, one of the hands was a Black man mom called “Uncle Albert”.   Uncle Albert’s wife, whom mom recalls was a rather beautiful woman, she called “Aunt Martha.”

My mother was taught to call adult friends “uncle” and “aunt” because it was thought disrespectful for a child to call an adult friend by their first name.

Since there were not many Blacks in the neighborhood at the time, Aunt Martha’s circle of friends was small and comprised mostly of White women.  And the prevailing custom was for a White woman to receive her White friends in her parlor or living room, but to receive her Black friends, if she had any, in her kitchen.  No doubt never being invited beyond the kitchen was originally conceived of as a way to send a message of some sort.

As mom recalls, grandmother ignored the prevailing custom and always received Aunt Martha in her living room, the same as she received everyone else.

Of course, nothing in the ways grandmother treated Aunt Martha — or even treated Blacks in general — was momentous, earthshaking or even sufficient grounds for erecting a statue of her, but her ways seem to me to have possessed a simple decency.

What makes grandmother’s behavior puzzling to me is that, from everything mom has told me about her, grandmother was one of those people who — quite far from ever wanting to risk stirring up trouble — habitually avoided any kind of social or personal conflict.  That is, she wasn’t exactly someone to routinely go against customs and conventions.  Yet, it appears that on a handful of issues — issues she felt strongly about — she would quietly stand her ground without making a show of it.

People are a strange maze of contradictions and complexities.

Thinking about all this, I would bet half the women who kept Aunt Martha in their kitchens did so simply because it was custom, because it was what their mothers taught them to do, and they never meant any cruelty by it.  They just thought it was her place.  People can be barbaric in their thoughtlessness.  They can be ugly in their carelessness and unquestioning obedience to custom.

My grandmother’s married name was “Terry”.  In part because of her somewhat strange ideas about race, which she communicated to her daughters, and in part for a small handful of other reasons, the women in her family eventually came to be nicknamed by some in their neighborhood, “The Terrible Terrys”.   I think that must surely have displeased her, given how little she liked controversy.


Originally posted January 9, 2010 and last revised April 27, 2017 for clarity.

How to Get Away with Buying a Playboy, Circa 1970

(About a 4 minute read)

It occurs to me this morning you might be wondering how someone would have gone about buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — and get away with it.  Of course, that was back when buying a Playboy in a small backwards town could break your reputation, so getting away with it was key.

Now, I don’t recall how old I was when I bought my first Playboy.  Older than 16, at least.  So long ago some of the details that never mattered to me anyway now escape me.

I do, however, recall that I bought my first Playboy at Potter’s Drugstore, and that Old Man Potter himself rang up my purchase.  Old Man Potter owned and operated one of two drugstores in my pathetically small town of 2,500 people where it seemed everyone knew everyone else.  And here’s what I recall about buying that Playboy:

I recall I began sweating the moment I picked it out of the magazine rack, and I began blushing the moment I handed it to Old Man Potter at the check out counter.  The only two people in the whole store at the time were Old Man Potter and me — I had carefully seen to that — but I nevertheless felt like the eyes of the entire community were upon me.

For a moment, everything seemed to go smoothly.  I handed the Playboy to Old Man Potter; Old Man Potter took the Playboy; he looked at the price just like he would any other magazine: and then he entered the price into his cash register.   Smooth.  Normal.  I was almost about to breath again when suddenly he said, “I’ll be right back.  I have to make a phone call.” Then he dashed off to the back room with the Playboy still in his hands.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I didn’t stop blushing.  I didn’t stop sweating.  I just waited.  Nothing like this had ever happened to me.  No one had ever before interrupted a transaction, leaving me waiting forever at the counter. I began imaging things.

I imagined he’d gone to the restroom.  I imagined he’d had a heart attack.  Worse, I imagined my aunt was about to walk through the door to the shop at the very same moment Old Man Potter came back with my Playboy.  For some reason, I could vividly imagine that, and the mere thought of it sent new waves of blood to my face.  By the time Old Man Potter came back, I was so red, I must have looked like a fire truck in estrus.  Fortunately, my aunt did not appear.

The rest was uneventful.  Old Man Potter simply finished up ringing up my purchase, took my money, handed me the Playboy and wished me a good day.  I thought I detected a tone of disapproval in his voice, but that could have been pure imagination.

At any rate, I left the store with my Playboy and walked straight home.  I wanted to get home before mom came home from work so I wouldn’t need to hide my Playboy in the garage, instead of taking the risk of trying to slip it past her on my way into the house.

By the time I got home — thankfully, ahead of mom — I had been thinking about where to hide the Playboy in my room.  Mom was a great respecter of my privacy, and she was by no means a snoop, but I was taking no chances.  I wanted neither the embarrassment of her finding out that I looked at filthy pornography, nor the inevitable loss of my filthy pornography if she did find out, because I knew she’d make me throw it away with my own hands if she discovered it.  Finally, I decided to hide it in the bottom drawer of my dresser, beneath my Psychology Today magazines.  She never read my Psychology Today magazines, I thought.

Nowadays, it must be difficult for people who were not alive in the early 70s to realize just how scandalous Playboy was to so very many people back then.  I knew, for instance, that if word got around my school I was buying Playboys, nearly half the kids in my class would think I was either creepy, or a pervert, or both.  The only thing powerful enough to overcome my fears of the risk I was taking was, of course, testosterone.  All conquering testosterone.

Lucky for me, I got away with it.  I even went back to Potter’s Drugstore the next month and bought the next issue.  And the one after that.  And so on, until I left town for college.  It never got any easier:  I always blushed mightily and I always sweat profusely, but I also always waited until I would be the only one at the counter — and I always got away with it.

Or so I thought.  Several years later, I was back in the town visiting mom.  I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point she mentioned — as casually as if she were talking about the tomato harvest — that time Old Man Potter had called her at work to inform her I was attempting to buy a Playboy.  Then as my jaw dropped she went on to say how she had shocked Old Man Potter by telling him she thought I was of an age now when it was only natural I’d be interested in girls and that he had her permission to sell me all the Playboys he could.  As I sank lower and lower into my chair, she mentioned, with a wry smile, that some of her friends thought she was a bit radical once word got all over town I was buying Playboys with her blessing.  Last, she thanked me for not leaving my Playboys lying around the house.  It’d been her only real worry that I might.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is how you get away with buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — you must first get yourself an understanding mother.  The rest is easy.


This article was originally published September 7, 2008.

Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Plumbing, Girl’s Diaries, Old Age, Real Men, and More

(About a 8 minute read)

Yesterday began bright and sunny.  Then in the afternoon, it began clouding over.  When the air chilled, the squirrels absented themselves, perhaps sensing the coming storm.

Eventually, the wind rose and the grass rippled.  Pink blossoms of the redbud tree swayed against the greying sky.  A few drops twitched old leaves.  Then, for a half hour or forty-five minutes, no more drops fell.

Finally, the rain came in earnest.

It’s still raining now in the wee hours of the morning, a moderate rain.

◊◊◊

Mikolas was from Czechoslovakia, back in the day when it was under Soviet control.  He had managed to escape to West Germany, and then immigrate to the United States.

Some years after he came to America, his toilet clogged up around two in the morning.  Mikolas opened his phone book, and found a plumber who advertised 24 hour emergency service.  The plumber dutifully came out and unstopped Mikolas’ toilet with nothing more than a common plunger.

To Mikolas’ amazement, he received by the end of the month a bill for $50, which would be about $225 in today’s money.  Mikolas was struck by the genius of the man.

Consequently, Mikolas bought a plunger, and began advertising himself as an emergency 24 hour service.  Perhaps a half dozen times a month he would be woken up by a phone call.  “This is Mikolas.  How may I help you?”  If the problem was anything other than a stopped up toilet, he would say, “All of our crews are out on calls at the moment.  It will be a few hours wait.”  No one would want to wait.

But if the problem was a stopped up toilet, Mikolas would earn $50 that night.

◊◊◊

Some years ago, as I recall, a team of social psychologists undertook to study teenage girl’s diaries from the 1950s and 1990s.

They found many similarities, but also that the ’50s diaries significantly mentioned the girl’s concerns with self-improvement.  The girls were writing quite a bit about getting better grades, cultivating virtues, such as kindness, and developing their skills, such as sewing.

The ’90s diaries had a different focus.  Diets, body-image anxieties, cosmetics, fashions, and what the boys thought of them.

◊◊◊

It is arguable that advertising has a greater impact on culture these days than does literature.

◊◊◊

Slower thinking in old age?  Perhaps not!

A few years ago, a computer simulation of old and young brains by scientists at Tübingen University in Germany suggested that older people might be processing information as fast as younger people — but just more of it.  That is, as you age, you have more information to sort through before you can respond to something, which gives the appearance of thinking slower.

The study was conducted in 2014.  I have just now finally digested it.

◊◊◊

Your task is not to seek love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself you have built against it.  — Rumi

◊◊◊

“Failures” aren’t failures if you learn from them.  They’re progress.

It seems to me there is little or no progress in politics these days.

◊◊◊

My second wife was, on her mother’s side, a direct descendant of a samurai — or more properly, in her case, a bushi — family that had been hatamoto to the Tokugawa shogunate.  To call her family “samurai”, she told me, would be a demotion in Japanese terms.  They were bushi, warriors.

Her family of warriors had at one time owned most of the land that is now southern Tokyo, and they were still quite traditional in some ways, despite that her mother had married an American.

My ex-wife’s grandmother thought that her granddaughter should be raised as a traditionally as possible, and taught her many of the ancient attitudes, skills, and customs, such as what it meant to be bushi, and how to wield the ko-naginata, or women’s pole sword.  Since her grandmother was Tomoko’s primary caregiver growing up, Tomoko spoke no more than two dozen words of English until she was 16 and immigrated with her mother and father to the United States.

Tomoko — whose name was spelled uncommonly to reference the “To” in Tokugawa —  in many ways retained her grandmother’s teachings into adulthood.  Nothing made that clearer to me than the day I wrote my first poem to her.

Until then, I had written exceedingly few poems in my life, and I had kept none of them, so Tomoko had quietly concluded that I simply lacked any inclination or ability to compose poetry.  Then, about 12 years after we’d met, and two years into our marriage, I found my poetic voice.  Or at least, one of my voices, and I wrote a poem to her.

At the time, I was in the habit of buying her flowers on Fridays and having them delivered to her work, because she worked weekends.  So that Friday at the florists, I attached the poem to the flowers.  Then I returned to my business, and worked late until perhaps ten or eleven o’clock.  When I got home, I was shocked to find Tomoko had been crying.

It was quite unusual for her to cry, and perhaps you can imagine some of the thoughts that immediately ran through my mind when she said she was crying because of the poem!  “My god, was it that bad!”, I said, trying to cheer her up.  However, she didn’t laugh, but began explaining to me something that in it’s own way shocked me even more than her tears.

I’ve forgotten exactly how she said it, but the gist was that she now regarded me as a “true male”, a real man.  That puzzled me, of course, because I was not in the habit of doubting my masculinity, and I had assumed she wasn’t either.  But when I got to questioning her, the truth came out.

In her mind, she had never doubted that I was most of the things she expected in a man of her own class, but since I had never shown any inclination or ability to write poetry, she had assumed I was lacking in the one thing left that was necessary to make me a “true male”.   A profound sensitivity to what it means to be alive.

For Tomoko, any old male could be, say, brave, because any old male could be dull enough to not feel the intensity of life.  How could you call such bravery “true bravery” when all it might amount to is giving up a life you don’t cherish enough anyway?  She had never doubted that I was brave enough in that way.  But in her view, it took a true male to be brave while yet acutely aware of being alive.  My poem had struck her as sensitive enough that I now qualified as capable of feeling life intensely.  That is, it wasn’t entirely the poem itself that had moved her, but the intensity of it.

All of this was such foreign thinking to me that my fascination with it almost overwhelmed my shock at realizing she had up until then thought of me as somewhat less than her ideal male.  I felt a little resentful that she hadn’t told me any of this before.  But that night proved to be the beginning of a change in our relationship.

Tomoko had experienced various forms of abuse during her childhood which had almost certainly left her with a nearly full blown borderline personality disorder.

She was brilliant, and would, say, do calculus problems in her head to stave off boredom during her idle moments, but she couldn’t control her volcanic rages.  There is no real cure for BPD, which involves permanent alterations to four areas of the brain, and back then, there was no effective medication nor therapy for it, either.

So her periodic rages never went away, but during the lulls between them now, Tomoko’s respect for me — which had, it turned out, been almost perfunctory by her Japanese standards — profoundly deepened, she displayed an openness to me that hadn’t been there before, and she even became, for the first time, wholly devoted to me.

I wrote a number of other poems to her after that first one, but none of them brought about any such unexpected revelations as that first.

A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

(About a 28 minute read)

Love is Timeless

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

I’ll grant it’s possible I might have factually exaggerated a little when I wrote that love, “travels back before gravity was born and forward beyond the last gods”.   Yet, there is still poetic truth to that statement, for love is indeed an ancient thing.

Love easily predates civilization, which is not much more than 5,500 years old.  And it almost certainly predates our own happy species of spear-chucking super-apes, for in all likelihood, our ancestors felt love too.   Some of the most current science on the subject — the work of Helen Fisher and others — strongly suggests that love is deeply rooted in our DNA.    All three kinds of it.

You see, Fisher has found physiological evidence that we humans experience at least three distinct kinds of love.  Not just one kind, as the English language suggests, but three.

Fisher calls them, “lust”, “attraction”, and “attachment”.  And each one comes with its very own physical “core system” in the brain.  Take that, English language — you drooling moron who only has one proper word for love!

I myself believe there is evidence for more than three.  Fisher, after all, has concerned herself only with the kinds of love directly involved in mating and reproduction.  She is mute on the topic of loves beyond that relatively narrow focus.   Which is fair.  No law obliges anyone of us to look at everything.

One of the games adolescents in particular like to play with each other — when they aren’t actually “playing” with each other — is to ponder what “true love” is.  If you look closely at their ponderings, however, you will usually find that they are comparing and contrasting Fisher’s lust, attraction, and attachment, without really knowing that they are doing it.   “True love should be enduring!” Attachment.  “It should be passionate!”  Attraction.  “It should not be merely sexual!” Lust.

In fact, all three kinds of love are equally true in the sense all three are deeply rooted in our DNA, and all three kinds are ancient.

The Suppression of Romantic Love

Perhaps a bit newer than the three loves, but still very ancient by human standards, is the instinct to pair off into couples.  That instinct, which is the psychological basis for marriage in almost all of its various forms, is just as certain as the loves to be older than civilization, and it might even — like the loves — have arisen prior to our own species.

Now, I think we can confidently suppose that, prior to about 11,000 years ago, the three kinds of love and pair bonding — or marriage, if you wish — often enough went hand in hand.  Then, sometime between that date and the rise of the first civilizations, all hell broke lose.   “Hell”, in this case, being the Agricultural Revolution.

You see, the Agricultural Revolution changed us from wandering hunter/gatherers to sedentary farmers.  And that change brought about a change in marriage customs that split apart the three loves and marriage.  Or, to be quite precise, split apart at least attraction and marriage.

Fischer’s “Attraction” can be thought of as what we commonly call today, “romantic love”.  Especially the early, most intense, stages of it.  And quite unfortunately for romantic love, it was capable of interfering with the new agricultural economy.   Basically, one or the other had to go, and it was romantic love that — in a decision so typical for our noble species of nincompoops — got the boot.

The problem, according to what seems to be the consensus of scientists, was inheritance.  Hunter/gatherers don’t have a lot to pass down to their children.  After all they can’t carry a whole lot with them in their territorial wanderings.  But farmers are another matter.  They have land to pass down.  And that means marriage becomes, not mainly an issue of who loves who, but at least significantly, an issue of who gets the land.

In hunting/gathering groups, the status of women — including their rights and freedoms — is closely associated with how much they contribute (relative to men) to the group’s total food supply.  Women, as providers, mainly gather plants.  Men, as providers, mainly hunt animals.   Those hunting/gathering groups that live in regions where plants are the main source of food are generally more egalitarian than those groups that live in regions (such as the Arctic) where animals, as a source of food, far outweigh plants.

It is generally thought that women might have been the sex that first domesticated plants, but at some point, men took over the actual labor of farming and thus became the main breadwinners of the family. That fun development most likely led to a decline in the rights and freedoms of women, and the rise of patriarchies.

Add to all of that, the eternal desire of men to insure that their women folks don’t cuckold them, and you perhaps get the first stirrings of the notion that women ought to be the property of men.  For what better way to make sure your woman doesn’t cuckold you than to basically turn her into your property?  And once you do that, you must also, to be consistent, make her the property of her father and her sons, as well.

Thus marriage became nearly a master/slave relationship.  Women generally still retained a few rights — such as the right to have children by their husbands (an infertile marriage was often enough one of the very few grounds by which a woman could divorce her husband), the right to compel their husband to support their children, etc — but the man had definitely become the lord of the household, and the woman his mere helpmate.  Adios to soulmates!  Goodbye to equal partners!   So long romantic love! The door is on the right!

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

— Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Of course, everything I’ve written here has been a superficial overview, a big picture look at it all.  There are myriads of details.  I must now ask you to fast forward to around 800 A.D. and the Arab World.

The Rebound of Romantic Love

It is about then, according to Joseph Campbell, that things start to change again.  That is, that romantic love begins to make a comeback.  And the comeback starts with the poets of the Arab World, of all people!  Poets, as every sensible person knows, are a suspicious lot.  While its certainly true that many of them — perhaps even most of them — are decent people who support the status quo with their verse, there are enough scoundrels among the lot that we should always be vigilant when dealing with the species.

For example:  Roughly around 800 A.D., a few quite scandalous Arab and Persian poets decided to reform romantic love — which at the time was widely regarded as a kind of madness.

According to Campbell, those deviates got it into their heads that romantically loving a woman for her individuality, her uniqueness as a person, was far and away more important than using her as — an in some sense interchangeable — means to economic betterment, or as a mere sex object.

Only being poets, they said those things with all sorts of unnecessarily flowering words of poetry and strikingly beautiful prose.   As for myself, I never use flowery or poetic words, even in my poetry, but that’s mainly because I don’t want the CIA to mistake me for an Arab or Persian and then send a few drones my way, if you’ll pardon my realism.

Now, I am no longer certain whether Campbell says the poets advocated actually marrying for love.  It seems more that they merely advocated romantically loving a mistress (as opposed to merely loving her erotically), while keeping a wife for heirs.  But at the time, saying anything at all in favor of romantic love would have been radical.

Of course, the powers that be pushed back on the newfangled idea.  For, if you first allow that “true” love is about loving someone for themselves, then you must soon enough afterwards allow that true love has a moral right to cross social boundaries. Rich can love poor, noble can love commoner, a person of one social class can love someone of another social class; and pretty soon no one keeps to his or her proper place in society.  Even common folks would no longer be primarily their social roles, but would become persons, individuals.  Next thing you know, they’ll demand rights as individuals! rather than merely demand them as members of some group, such as peasants, masons, or carpenters.  There could be no end to the scandal!

It wasn’t long after the worst elements of the Arab and Persian societies had invented romantic love that it got packed into the songs and speeches of the troubadours, who brought it to Christian Europe beginning around 1200 A.D. And the notion soon got the European upper-classes to wondering whether their customary marriages were really all that they could and should be.  For the upper-classes were for the most part the only ones at the time who had the wealth to indulge themselves in the thought of — if not actually marrying for love — then at least keeping a mistress for love (and not merely for sex).

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.  — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Now please allow me to jump forward again.   The time, now, is the mid to late 1800s when the growing middle class in the Western nations is at last becoming wealthy enough that it is no longer strictly necessary to marry almost purely for economic reasons.  Hence, the flowering of the idea that one should marry for love.  And this flowering has continued with us up until the present age, known to scholars as The Age of Excruciating Blogging, when the idea has been expanding not only in depth (e.g. to justify such things as same-sex marriages), but also in reach (i.e. into the non-Western world).

The Specter of Divorce

However, the same economic conditions that make practical the notion of marrying for love also, beginning around 1970 when women start entering the labor force in large numbers, make practical the push for a greater egalitarianism between the sexes.   In a sense, society has ever since then been returning to the egalitarianism of most hunting/gathering groups — speaking strictly in terms of the sexes here (Meanwhile  wealth has increasingly become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands).  But with this return came rising rates of divorce.

If you have (1) the notion that you should marry for love, and (2) the economic means to support yourself without a partner, then you might be very disinclined to stay in a loveless marriage.  Divorce seems to have peaked in the United States in 1980, and to have slowly declined since then, but it is still a significant problem — especially, given how devastating it can be.

The wise American solution, of course, is often enough to try to make it tougher for couples to divorce so that their loveless marriages may endure.  Because we Americans all know that quantity is superior to quality, especially when it comes to marriage, right?

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the total number of bills making divorce harder to obtain have been passed into law by conservatives in recent years, but conservatives are unlikely to give up on such efforts anytime soon because, you know, conservatives.

Liberals, meanwhile, seem to vacillate far too much for an answer either because, you know, liberals.  In fact, both parties seem to be stumped for a solution to the divorce problem.  Which is not at all surprising these days because, of course, politicians.  Even though quite a few scientists from multiple branches of science have now reached a firm consensus that politicians are actually Homo sapiens, members of our own species, I myself still have legitimate doubts about that.  It’s well known there was some scandalous interbreeding with Neanderthals going on a few thousand years ago.  Just sayin’….

Now I should perhaps mention that I am not personally a great and hearty proponent of marriage.  While I think it’s a wonderful thing for some people (in much the same spirit as I think parachuting naked onto an Alaskan glacier in winter to fight grizzlies with a hand-axe is just dandy for some people), I myself find oaths of eternal monogamy stifling on several levels, and I would only be able to tolerate a marriage if it was between me and a free spirited bonobo an open one.

However, I am not yet insane enough to imagine that other people’s monogamy destroys the sanctity of my two divorces and current state of celibacy.  So I’ve tirelessly hunted down for you, dear readers, some fascinating information on how to stay happily married!  You’re welcome!

Here are the five stellar nuggets of reliable marital advice that I found after literally minutes of actual searching on your behalf on the internet!  You’re welcome again!

  • Keep the romance in your relationship alive by buying sexy lingerie.  (American Association of Lingerie Merchants)
  • Get your marriage off to the right start with a timely prenuptial agreement.  (American Paralegal Association)
  • Keep that “Special Sparkle” in your marriage by buying household cleaning products.   (Alliance of Cleaning Agent Manufacturers)
  • Be sure to visit the Friendly Mountain State of Colorado on your honeymoon and anniversaries.  (Colorado State Tourists Bureau)
  • Avoid the proven dangers of vaccinating your children by buying safe herbal remedies instead.  (Dr. Jenny Ann Smams’ Health and Happiness Herbal Web-Store)

As you can see, it’s a simple scientific fact that all it really takes to enjoy a long, happy marriage is a valid credit card!  And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?

Seven Snippets of Science-based Advice

To recap: The Agricultural Revolution, along with other factors, changed marriage from a more or less egalitarian love match into an often loveless patriarchal arrangement.  Then, beginning around 800 AD, some low sorts in the Middle East started pushing back.  Eventually, that led to a rebirth of the notion one should marry for love.  But that raises a question: If love, in one form or another,  is now the basis of marriage,  then how does one nurture and maintain it in order to avoid unhappy, loveless marriages or divorce?

To be clear, I am in no way advocating that people stay in unhappy marriages.  In fact, I think such marriages are better off dissolved.  But “better off” is a relative term here.  In my experience, divorce is devastating, and the only thing worse than it is an unhappy marriage (Whether or not to divorce, however, is a decision best left up to the spouses themselves).  My aim here is not to promote staying in unhappy marriages, but to pass along some sound information about how to head off an unhappy marriage in the first place.

That information does not come from me, however — nor even from the ever trenchant and insightful people at the Colorado State Tourism Bureau — but from a group of scientists largely working at the University of Washington.  The leader of those scientists is John Gottman.   Gottman was one of the founders of the University’s so-called, “Love Lab”, and he and his colleagues’ findings might possibly provide some insights into how couples can build and maintain high-quality, loving relationships.

What I intend to do here is to simply lay out some of Gottman’s research-based insights (with a bit of commentary for clarification provided by me).  He, of course, believes they are quite effective.  I believe they are most likely effective.  But the real judge must be you and your own experience when attempting to apply them.  This is, after all, science, not dogma.  With that said, let’s to the chase!

 • First, if you aren’t doing it already, keep up to date on your partner’s world.  A lot of us don’t seem to do this.  Early on in a relationship, we freely ask a lot of questions.  But so often we fail to actively check later on in the relationship whether anything has changed.  Knowing your partner is essential, according to Gottman, and keeping up with them is a vital part of that.  So, know his or her goals, worries, and hopes; their images of themselves; their relationships to the key people in their lives; and the major events in their history, among many other things.

 • Second,  nurture fondness and admiration.  In various studies, Gottman claims to have been able to predict with an accuracy of between 80% and 94% whether a couple will soon divorce.  Although his rates of prediction are still controversial, it seems that his insight into what factors to look for as dangerous warning sights a couple is on the verge of divorce are somewhat less controversial.  The key factors are: (1) criticism of partners’ personality, (2) contempt (from a position of superiority), (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  Of the four, Gottman believes contempt is the most important.

To counteract at least some of the four factors, make it a habit to remind yourself of your spouse’s genuine virtues — even in the midst of a conflict.

• Next, turn towards each other.  Gottman believes that in marriages, people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. For instance, your partner might say to you, “Come take a look at my newest stick figure drawing of you, dear!  I think it might be my best work to date.  Do you think we can have it framed to hang above the fireplace?”  If you somehow positively acknowledge your quite possibly deranged partner’s bid in circumstances like this, then — according to Gottman — you are laying a foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

On the other hand, if you routinely “turn away” from these bids,  then you are doing the opposite.  That is, you are undermining the foundation for emotional connection, etc.

• Let your partner influence you!  As Gottman puts it:

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagrees, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. It’s just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But our data indicate that the vast majority of wives—even in unstable marriages—already do that. Too often men do not return the favor.

 

• Solve your solvable problems.  Not all problems are solvable, but you should certainly solve those that can be solved.  Gottman proposes how to go about it, too.  To quote:

  • Step 1. Use a softened startup: Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings without blame, and express a positive need (what you want, not what you don’t want). Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up.
  • Step 2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts: De-escalate the tension and pull out of a downward cycle of negativity by asking for a break, sharing what you are feeling, apologizing, or expressing appreciation.
  • Step 3. Soothe yourself and each other: Conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and you are too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying. Take a break to soothe and distract yourself, and learn techniques to soothe your spouse.
  • Step 4. Compromise: Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

Apparently, those steps were not invented by Gottman, although they are recommended by him.  I myself, however, used to use a version of them back in the day to great effect.  The challenge is to turn them into habit so that you stick with them even in the heat of a conflict.

• Overcome gridlock by honoring your partner’s dreams.  Gottman believes that many “perpetual conflicts” have at their root possibly unexpressed dreams, goals, or visions.  These can be simple things, such as what neighborhood to live in, or they can be as huge as what one partner believes is the meaning of life.  In dealing with gridlock then, you should try the tactic of discovering your partner’s dreams for themselves and your marriage, and then honoring them.  You don’t need to make them your own, but you do need to honor them.

• Last, create shared meaning.  Once again, as Gottman puts it:

 Marriage can have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, family values, and cultural legacy that forms a shared inner life. Each couple and each family creates its own microculture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It strikes me that, to the extent they are effective, Gottman’s insights can be applied far beyond marriage.  They can, for instance, be applied to any partnership inside or outside of marriage.  And they can even be applied to “mere” friendships.

In my opinion, his insights look to be of some use, but of course, as I said earlier, the final authority on that is you and your own experiences trying to apply them.

Impressively Profound Summary

For various reasons,  old, patriarchal marriages seem to be on their way out the door not just in the Western world, but increasingly elsewhere, too.  It may yet take another hundred or two hundred years, however, before they are almost entirely a thing of the past.   The success or failure of those marriages was largely measured in terms of such things as the number of children born to them, whether they resulted in anyone’s economic betterment, and, of course, their duration.  Considerations such as whether they were loving marriages didn’t arise until nearly modern times.  But today that consideration has so much come to the forefront that even most proponents of traditional marriages now like to say love is key to a good marriage.

The old patriarchal marriages are being replaced by new, more egalitarian marriages based primarily on love.  Ironically, these allegedly “new” marriages are very likely to have more ancient roots than the allegedly “old” marriages, for they seem to date back to our hunting/gathering past, when societies in general, and not just marriages, were more egalitarian.

The new marriages, however, do raise some problems, for they usually are not shored up by oppressive or coercive societal pressures or laws.  Because they are based on love, they are freely entered into, and perhaps almost as freely exited.  Thus, to keep them together puts a premium value on nurturing and maintaining love in the relationship.  And that, of course, is great news for therapists and marriage counselors!

But where do you think marriage is headed?  Is it true that egalitarian marriages are increasingly shoving aside patriarchal marriages — perhaps even worldwide?  How key is love, really, to a happy marriage?  Are there any remaining reasons or justifications for unhappy couples to stay together these days?  And will civilization survive the Age of Excruciating Blogging?  Please weigh in with your thoughts, feelings, comments, and drunken offers of marriage!


A closely related post:  Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”